Saturday, February 28, 2009
On the way home from an especially fun book signing in San Diego, my wife and I stopped off at the Imperial Dunes, a sea of massive sand dunes just twenty miles west of the California/Arizona line.
These dunes stretch for over fifty miles, from Sonora, Mexico well into the California interior just east of the Salton Sea. It’s a spectacular stretch of shifting yellow, reminiscent of some of the harsher areas of the Sahara. Dunes three hundred feet tall are common; they’re formidable, with bladed edges, curving crescents, and plunging cliffs off the leeward side. The sand dune scenes of the original Star Wars trilogy were shot here. One half expects R2D2 or maybe a camel to make an appearance.
There’s no fence across the border here. And until Interstate 8, there were no roads here either, unless one counts the wooden planks dropped down in the early 1900s. You may encounter illegals on ATVs or even Humvees. Maybe that’s why one sees green-striped Border Patrol vehicles everywhere.
Luckily, we didn’t see any news reports about shoot outs with drug runners in the Imperial Dunes Recreational Area until we got home. Seems it’s not an unusual occurrence, although night battles are most common.
We rented ATVs, and for old farts, did a credible job attacking these powdery monsters and laying our tracks. (Relax, tree-huggers, there were no fragile plants to trample or rip, and blowing sand soon covered our passage.) With just a little practice, I was soon ripping across wind-blown speed bumps, using my legs to absorb the pounding as I built up speed to challenge a nearly vertical three hundred foot climb.
Too little speed and one learns the hard way how to turn around a five hundred pound vehicle on a vertical face in knee deep sand. Too much speed, and you fly over the crescent and drop thirty or more feet, screaming because you know this is not good news. Ostriches do face plants; people tend to break their necks. Just a few weeks ago, the Border Patrol had to helicopter out a woman who’d tried to play ostrich.
Needless to say, my wife was a bit more cautious than me, but then, she’s got some common sense. I’m a guy; guys do stupid things, it's in our genetic structure. I thought I'd lost my stupid guy trick-bag sometime during my fifties, when my wife was re-ordering my priorities and forcing me to grow up, but put me on an ATV and Wa-Hoo, testosterone and idiocy blossom once again.
Watch out Poncho. The Cisco Kid is back.
We sandblasted our exposed body parts for an hour-and-a-half. Enough for a first taste. But we’ll be back. Fun like that doesn’t come every day. Next time we’ll plan a weekend, and maybe rent more powerful machines.
In the meantime, we’re struggling to figure out how get the sand out. Two showers later, and we’re still finding sand: in our mouths, our eyelashes, our hair ― even under our nails.
You see some strange things in places like this. Like some guy in a late model SUV, flying an enormous Italian flag, backing up a quarter mile, and then roaring forward, getting a head of steam as he charges up a three hundred foot vertical face. He gets to the top and turns around, charges down the face again. He gets out and waves the flag, then climbs back in and does it all over again.
Don’cha just love Italians?
I’m so sore, I may not move for a week. Pass the Naproxen, please.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Using the web for research can appear to be the easiest way to research your topic. But beware! You always need to check your source. When I researched domestic violence statistics for my mystery, I ran into a range of numbers that set domestic violence in the U.S at anywhere from one in ten women to one-half of all women. I chose the statistics that could be backed up by the FBI's Uniform Crime reports as being the most accurate and up to date.
Before we get to the list of helpful websites, I just want to note that the first place you should probably start with research on the web is again--close to home. If your area writer's group has a list serve or chat group, let your research needs be known. I did this when I needed blood splatter information and in one email to my area writer's group let over 200 writers know what I was looking for. Better yet, I got an answer from a fellow writer who volunteered her FBI crime scene detective husband as a research source. The upshot of this was that not only did I get my questions answered, but when the group heard what happened, they invited the FBI man to talk to the group about crime scenes. So we all benefited. Don't be shy! This is the ultimate way to network.
If your research needs are complicated, don’t forget that there are many courses offered online.
And last but not least, the reason you're reading this article: a few places that mystery writers can use for research. So scroll down and see if you can find a jumping off point for your own research needs.
As always though, I have to add the disclaimer--do your homework and check out the people giving you the answers. Just because a web site appears on this list doesn't mean it's right for you. It is just a site that I've run into at one time or another that I thought to be helpful..
Also remember that all sites have a bias of one sort or another. A lawyer may not see things the way a cop does or the way a criminal would.
Carpenter's List of Forensic Science Resources: Just what it says--a list of links on everything from Arson to locating Forensic experts.
The Graveyard Shift A blog about police procedure and investigation
Crimescenewriter@yahoogroups.com To quote from the group description “A forum for asking and answering crime scene investigation, applied forensics, and police procedure questions for fiction or non-fiction writers.” They encourage questions.
Real Police Great looking site. Articles and info about cops. The ask-a-cop message board promises that messages are monitored by real cops who will answer your questions.
A site to buy or sell guns. Since the guns are for sale, they've included pictures, which I found helpful, along with a brief description. Sorted by date as well as by type of gun,--interesting stuff for an historical mystery--or a modern day one.
Weapons_info@yahoogroups.com This group says in its blurb that writers make many errors regarding weapons of all types. They want to help. The bios of the moderator and consultants are available.
National Institute of Health
Tons of information. Diseases, symptoms, drugs and their side effects, it's all here.
And finally a site that has even more links to a ton of research sites for every mystery writer’s needs-- Write-Brain.com
Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Definition: Mystery is a genre of fiction in which a detective, either an amateur or a professional, solves a crime or a series of crimes. Because detective stories rely on logic, supernatural elements rarely come into play. The detective may be a private investigator, a policeman, an elderly widow, or a young girl, but he or she generally has nothing material to gain from solving the crime. Subgenres include the cozy and the hard-boiled detective story.
That seems pretty simple and straightforward, doesn't it? But it sure gives us a lot of latitude. My mystery can be a police procedure with accurate details in the day-to-day work of a police investigation -- kind of a CSI type mystery. Or a Women's Murder Club.
My mystery can be an unsuspecting young woman who has to figure out who killed her boss and why, before she's the next victim, although that does certainly give her a real something to gain, other than material gain! My detective can be a Miss Marple, Harry Bosch, Nancy Drew or Gil Grissom type. My mystery can be a murder, a robbery, a kidnapping or any other crime.
Your mystery can be whatever you like -- the kind of detective and crime you like to try to figure out. It can be whenever and wherever you want it to be. As a writer, you can write the mystery you love to read. As a reader, you can seek out the writers who write what you love to read.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
British mystery novelist David Snowdon is on tour with his new book, The Mind of a Genius. When I was contacted for a possible host stop by Nikki Leigh, who is organizing the tour, I thought, perfect for Make Mine Mystery blog! Mr. Snowdon has answered some questions I asked of him for the purposes of posting the interview below. But first, about the book:
(The Formula That Could Change The World)
Special Agent, Jason Clay from the MI4 is hired to find a secret formula that was invented by the famous British scientist, Malcolm Prince. The only weak element in Clay’s strategy to accomplish his mission is Laura Prince, the beautiful wife of the scientist, who Clay has to seduce in order to obtain the formula.
But the CIA, the Denmark Intelligence, the Australian Intelligence and many other very determined individuals are also after that formula, and can’t wait to get their hands on it. The competition is fierce, but who’s going to win?
The story develops as a travel through the world; with the action starting in London, then moving onto Copenhagen, Hong Kong and Australia.
Clay appears to be the right man for the job; extremely handsome and a natural charmer, nothing could be easier for him than seducing a beautiful woman in order to obtain a top secret.
All right. Let’s get into the interview with author David Snowdon. Enjoy, and please feel free to ask him questions in the comments. Remember he is in a considerably different time zone from US readers and there may be a gap in the interaction if you are from the States or other parts of the globe, so keep that in mind.
Marvin: David, as a British author, do find your books appeal more to the European market, or the American market, or are they received just as well in both markets? How many countries are your books available in and how are the sales globally?
David: The kind of fiction I write is universal. My books are set all over the world, so I would say that there’s a similar kind of interest in the UK and the US. My first published work, Too Young To Die, was set in London, Jamaica and Miami, so you can see why my books would appeal to both the British and the American readers. But only time will tell what will happen in the long run. At the moment, the books are predominantly available in the UK, but they can be ordered from all over the world. The global sales are not bad.
Marvin: Your new release, The Mind of a Genius, has a story line that takes the action from London to Copenhagen, to Hong Kong and Australia. Have you lived in and/or spent considerable time in all of those countries? Or did you have to do some research to be able to write your story and make it (the scene settings) so believable?”
David: I live in London, and I have been to all of the other countries. So the descriptions of the countries are accurate. You can write about a country you haven’t been to, but it’s always better to visit the country or countries that you intend to write about. That way, the story will be more realistic.
Marvin: Mystery, suspense, the thriller – seems to be your favorite genre in which to write. What compelled you to write in that genre?
David: I’ve always been interested in that genre. I find mystery and suspense thrillers fascinating. To be able to read a novel that keeps me on the edge of my seat is fantastic. Having said that, I also like a bit of humour and a bit of romance in a thriller, but it’s the ability to keep wondering what’s going to happen next that really attracts me to a novel. And that’s why I write mystery and suspense thrillers.
Marvin: When did you first decide it was your calling to be a published author? Can you point to any particular event or stage in your life when it became obvious to you that you were meant to be an author?
David: As a child, I used to write and narrate short stories and I enjoyed it. But it was later on in life when I started reading novels, that the urge to write a book materialized. And that was when I realized that I wanted to be a published author.
Marvin: What was the inspiration for the story line of The Mind of a Genius?
David: I wrote my first espionage thriller in 1984. Twenty-three years later, I had a desire to write another espionage thriller. And it was the desire to write a modern-day espionage that inspired me to write, The Mind of a Genius. All I had to do was use the plot from my unpublished 1984 espionage thriller in a new story, and the new story was, The Mind of a Genius.
Marvin: Ever have writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
David: I’ve never encountered writer’s block. I get an idea, I do the research and I write.
Marvin: How do you go about creating your characters? Are they drawn from real life, or do you just dream them up, or a combination of sorts?
David: My characters are figments of my imagination, but I like to use general human characteristics for all of my characters to make them seem as realistic as possible. When I have an idea for a certain character, I determine its characteristics before I start writing about the character.
Marvin: What is your writing regimen like? Do you write every day, the methodical writer, or are you a binge writer when the inspiration hits. Or maybe both or something else entirely?
David: It all starts with an idea. When I get an idea for a book, I consider the idea. And if I think it’s a good idea, I write an outline, do some research and then I start writing. When I’m working on a book, I don’t write every day, just a few days a week, and for a few hours. Most of the corrections are done after I’ve finished writing the first draft.
Marvin: Name the three or four most important things, in your professional opinion, that are crucial elements in a good mystery novel.
- The plot; a good plot is very essential. A bad plot will result in an unrealistic book.
- Mystery and suspense; this plays a key role in a good mystery novel. The ability to keep the readers guessing what will happen next, and to have them on the edge of their seats is very important.
- Action and interesting characters; a certain amount of the right kind of action at the right time will arouse the readers interest. And interesting characters will make the book fascinating.
- Good dialogue; this is also important as poor dialogue can make a good mystery novel boring.
Marvin: What other advice can you give aspiring authors on how to write a book that will capture the interest of today’s readers, especially within your genre – the mystery/suspense/thriller?
David: Painstaking research is indispensable.
Marvin: David, it’s been a pleasure having you here on Make Mine Mystery blog today. Please feel free to stop in a few times throughout the day and evening and interact with our readers. I know some of them may have some questions for you or may ask advice from you. And please- leave us your website info, where to buy your books, etc. Thanks once again for sharing with us today.
David: Thanks, Marvin. Likewise, it’s been a pleasure being on Make Mine Mystery blog today. I look forward to hearing from the readers. And the information is as follows;
For more information visit www.the-mind-of-a-genius.com
About the book:
The Mind of a Genius
Publisher: Pentergen Books
Date of publish: Nov 16, 2007
S.R.P £6.99/ $13.56
Available from Waterstone’s.com, Blackwell.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and all good bookshops in the UK.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Sunday, February 22, 2009
In 1842, a young man left Scotland to begin a new life in the United States. Legend has it he left his native land only one quick step ahead of the law due to his early years as a hardboiled, two-fisted fighter for the rights of the working class.
He arrived in Chicago in 1842 at the age of 24 and supported his young family by working as a cooper and, eventually, as a policeman. In 1846, his natural tendencies of dogged determination and perseverance led to his uncovering a major counterfeiting ring. On his own time and working unofficially, he discovered evidence leading to the apprehension and conviction of the perpetrators. From that experience, he came up with the idea of filling the void left by inept and severely restricted official police forces with a private agency.
In 1850, he opened an office and began hiring out to individuals and businesses for the purposes of investigation and detection. He quickly gained a reputation for success in tracking down and apprehending lawbreakers and his business grew rapidly.
During the Civil War, he established a spy network which served President Abraham Lincoln well. After the war, his intrepid force of detectives pursued the likes of Jesse James, the Reno Brothers, and the duo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Always innovative and creative, he developed many techniques of surveillance and detection commonly used today by law enforcement agencies worldwide as well as those who have followed in his footsteps as private investigators.
One of those developments was the collection and widespread circulation of photographs of criminals and suspects accompanied by detailed records and descriptions. Now the use of mug shots and wanted posters are an indispensable tool of law enforcement.
When he felt the the need for a symbol for his enterprise, he drew a wide open, unblinking human eye with the words beneath it, “We Never Sleep.” From that symbol and from his innovative approach to crime detection came the now-familiar expression “Private Eye.”
The name of the young man who created the profession of private investigating was, of course, Allan Pinkerton, and the company he created is now synonymous the world over with investigation, surveillance and security.
Years after the founder’s death, another adventurous young man joined the Pinkerton agency. Eventually, however, he would turn to writing and create a fictional character who became the quintessential model of the tough, hardboiled, two-fisted private eye.
One might wonder if that young man--Dashiell Hammett-- gleaned some of his character--Sam Spade-- from stories heard around the water cooler about the legendary exploits of the very first private eye--Allan Pinkerton himself.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Can a great looking book cover sell a poorly written book? The answer is yes if the buyer is in a hurry and doesn’t take time to read. Conversely, does a poorly designed cover discourage sales of a good book? It can if word of mouth hasn’t proclaimed the book a good read or it wasn’t written by a favorite or bestselling author.
A book cover should represent its contents, mood and style. The artwork should not only be attractive but represent the book’s meaning as well as attract potential buyers. It should also project drama and literary punch. That’s a tall order, which doesn’t always happen. Books that are projected to sell less than 5,000 copies are deemed unworthy of original artwork and are consigned to the cheap stock illustrations.
In large publishing houses, the author, who usually wants complete approval of the book cover, rarely has the leverage to get it. Most writers have to settle for some kind of guaranteed consultation, which means that they get to see a semi-final proof. Working with a small press has its advantages if the publisher allows an author the right to reject a cover he or she don’t like, but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes none of the artwork pleases you so you choose the one that’s least objectionable.
Because I don’t want to make negative remarks about anyone else’s books, I’ll use my own as examples. My historical Wyoming novel, Escape, has an attractive cover and remained number one in sales for two months in multi format while my recent mystery/suspense novel, A Village Shattered, topped the list for only half that time. I blame it on the lackluster cover, which is gray to represent the fog that hides the serial killer. It looks okay when held, but comes across as dreary and boring online.
The second book in the series, Diary of Murder, has a snowy mountain background instead of a diary, which has little to do with the title although mountains do play a role later in the plot. Fortunately, I was able to submit a photo I had taken of the actual area instead of the one the publisher was planning to use, but I’m still not completely happy with the results.
Another problem that comes into play is the size of the author’s name. The name should increase in size with each book published, but if you have three names like mine, it can only grow large enough to fit across the page. That’s not author ego, it tells the potential buyer your status in the publishing industry.
Color has a lot to do with the cover’s appeal. Reds, bright blues, greens and yellows catch the eye and shout, “Pick me up and read me.” While grays, tans, white and beige backgrounds don’t appear to be as interesting unless, of course, the foreground is colorful and attractively designed. Rich colors such as burgundy with gold lettering denote a richness of plot as well.
Which book covers appeal most to you and did you pick them up because of their designs?
Friday, February 20, 2009
Does that mean we don't really know what we're writing or talking about? I sometimes think so. But to put a more kindly face on it, I'd say us writers don't expect our readers to understand what's going on until we explain it to them.
The explaining takes a lot of different twists and turns and involves many different people.
So what makes a good mystery? Plot is important, of course. Without it, there would be no mystery. But I think the most memorable mysteries are those featuring truly memorable characters.
Most familiar in the classic hardboiled ranks are guys like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. From a different perspective, there are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, along with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Coming down to the present, the list could go on and on. Fortunately, there are lots of contemporary authors creating memorable characters.
But the question remains, is plot more important in creating a memorable mystery, or is it character? What do you think?
Thursday, February 19, 2009
I heard that. So you don't think us old fogies should have or do have heroes, huh? Well, young whipper snapper let me tell you a thing or three: Just because we have lived long enough to be considered experts or leaders or even folks who have outlived everyone else, we still have people we admire and dream of being when we grow up.
Since I love reading mysteries, of course many of my writing heroes are mystery authors. Many of my favorites I'll never be able to meet, either because they're gone or because they live too far away and may never cross my path.
However, through my attending book festivals and conferences and going to local book signings, I've met several whose books are in my book shelves -- now some with autographs.
I attended the Red Dirt Book Festival nearly six years ago, the first one held. The featured speaker was Tony Hillerman. I not only attended all of his sessions, I was able to visit with him outside of the structured events. What a delightful man. His mysteries fascinated me because he wove the suspense into his knowledge of the Navajo culture. He autographed two of his books, but the autograph in his autobiography was personal and touching. I'll miss Tony Hillerman; Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee can be found again in the books that Tony left behind.
I first met Marcia Preston through her writing magazine ByLine Magazine, and then through OWFI (Oklahoma Writers' Federation). Her award winning books are not the gritty, hard-nosed mysteries found so often any more, but each book with a mystery winding through the chapters are well-written and interesting. I only have one of her autographed books, though, one that won the Oklahoma Book Award a few years ago. I noticed her recent book is one of the finalists for this year's honor.
Carolyn Hart appeared at a local bookstore, and I nearly beat her there. I like her two series I've read, the Books on Demand series and the Henry O one. I've ordered the first of her new series and will let everyone know how I like it. Anyway, back to the book signing, Carolyn was kind enough to visit with me. I also went home with three autographed books.
With her encouragement, I put my fears aside and wrote Midnight Hours, which by the way placed 10th in the Mystery Preditors & Editors Readers Poll category, and 4th in the mainstream category.
I don't remember when I first met William Bernhardt, but we've attended several of the same functions over the years. I would like to attend his writing workshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma some day, but we'll have to see if that works. Bill's characters may be flawed, but they still manage to survive and solve. I think that's true of real people, too.
J. A. Jance, the keynote speaker at the OWFI writing conference last year, is a delightful person, and very interesting. She answered questions for the interview with her with thoughtful answers. When I asked how many books I could bring to the conference for her to sign, she answered, "All of them, if you're willing to wait until the end of the line so we don't keep people waiting." I didn't take all her books I own, but I took a few of my favorites and bought two new titles there.
Also at the conference last year, I finally met CJ Lyons. We had visited on line for some time, but we met face to face there. In fact she sat at our table for both banquets. She's a good writer and an excellent conversationalist. I'm reading her second medical thriller now.
Through the OWFI Yahoo group, I "met" Jordan Dane. We met in person at the Edmond Authors Book Festival in January. She came to the writing group's (Pen and Keyboard Writers) meeting Saturday and spoke. Now her books are gritty. Her protagonists are tough women, even though they all have issues. I have copies of two of her first three books. She will be interviewed by me before long.
This May, I'll meet Tess Gerritsen, who I hear is one of the top current mystery writers. I'm reading one of her books, so I'll see if she becomes one of my writing heroes or not.
Maybe some day someone can say Vivian Zabel is his or her hero, but even if that never happens, I'll keep on writing my books because of the influence of authors such as Tony Hillerman, Marcia Preston, Carolyn Hart, Bill Bernhardt, J.A. Jance, CJ Lyons, and Jordan Dane.
Who are your mystery writing heroes?
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
The essence of Lansdale's message to me was, "Great writers take risks." He should know. He has a cult following because he is not afraid to take risks with his writing, be it horror, science fiction, western, or mystery.
Here's the beginning of Two-Bear Mambo, the third book in his Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mystery series.
"When I got over to Leonard's Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Head Hunters turned way up over at his place, and they were singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door."
The characters in Lansdale's books are always doing something outrageous and Joe is willing to take the risk of letting them do it. In this case we find that this is the third time Leonard has set fire to the house, which is actually a crack house, and Leonard, being a hard-headed conservative, can't stand drug dealers. We also learn that Leonard's male lover is watching. Yep, Leonard's conservative and homosexual and black. His best buddy, Hap, the narrator is white, heterosexual, and a bleeding-heart liberal. Both men can take care of themselves. You want them on your side in a fight.
Other writers pair up partners of different ethnicity, some even pair up partners with different sexual orientations, but only Lansdale pairs up partners who are so different from each other. In the hands of other writers, these kind of partnerships seem intended to show that society is moving forward and becoming more tolerant. Not Lansdale. His stories are set in East Texas, which is not any less tolerant than other parts of the country, but whose intolerance is more visible, like a scar on the forehead. Lansdale isn't afraid to turn away from racism, homophobia and other intolerances.
Don't think that the Hap and Leonard stories are just two-fisted buddy adventures salted with profanity. Take Mucho Mojo, for example. In this story Leonard and Hap discover a body while renovating a house left to Leonard by his uncle. They also find baffling clues to the murderer left by the uncle who was suffering from the later stages of Alzheimer's. It's not only a great action story; it's a compelling mystery and a commentary on the disease and it's effects on the victim's loved ones.
Then there's Bubba Ho-tep. Bubba Ho-tep is a horror novella that first appeared in the collection of Lansdale stories, Writer of the Purple Rage. It was later made into a movie starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. The movie played mainly in art house theaters.
Bubba Ho-tep claims to tell the true story of Elvis Presley (played by Campbell in the movie) who did not die on a toilet in 1977. Instead, he had traded identities with an impersonator because he was tired of the stardom. It was the impersonator who died and the real Elvis, through a series of events, ends up in a nursing home in East Texas. Lansdale is so convincing that this reader, a confirmed skeptic of all things conspiracy, is ready to believe that Elvis is still alive. Elvis's best friend in the home is John F. Kennedy. Yep, he's still alive, too, and, because I'm ready to believe the Elvis story, I'm also ready to believe the JFK story. Kennedy is played by Ossie Davis in the movie, and, if you wonder about that, you'd better read the story.
All would be okay at the nursing home except for an Egyptian mummy which had been stolen from a museum, ended up in a river, and came back to life. The mummy now preys on the residents of the nursing home, sucking their souls. This is where you know you are not reading a schlock horror story. The monster is not chasing half-dressed, nubile coeds, but the elderly and the infirm. Why? Because, 1. the elderly are slow and can be easily caught; 2. They are weak and their souls are easy to take; 3. The supply of elderly is continuously replenished; 4. Nobody cares how they died or that they are gone. This is not a story about monsters, but about ourselves. It's about friendship, growing old, and mistreatment of the elderly. Lansdale doesn't preach, however. Instead, he tells the story in his own outrageous way, which includes a climactic battle between the mummy and the old men on motorized wheelchairs.
Lansdale is a writer's writer. He takes risks with his characters, setting, plot and themes. If you are a fan, you already know that, but if you haven't tried one of his stories, pick one up and see how a master does it.
Hawaiian Eye Blog
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Our kids and grand-kids all insist the house is haunted, and it very well may be. I have no problem with ghosts, in fact my husband and I enjoy staying in haunted hotels. We stayed in one across from the Alamo (ghosts knocked on doors all night long), on the Queen Mary a couple of times (it is definitely haunted), and Room 17 at the Bella Maggoire Bed and Breakfast in Ventura which is haunted by a prostitute.
In our house doors do open and shut when no one is around to do it. There are also lots of odd sounds–but don’t all old houses do that? Another explanation for odd sounds are named Butch, Sundance and Squeaky–our three house cats.
But the biggest mysteries we have are things that break down at the most inopportune times. Last week, the coldest week of the winter, our gas heater quit. The gas man came out and got it started again, but it soon became apparent we needed a more permanent fix which turned out to be a new pilot igniter. Hubby took care of that after a couple of chilly days.
Next was the lower oven in the stove. Granddaughter tried to bake a cake when it went out. Hubby found the problem, says he can fix it, but the parts are sitting on the counter top. I’m cooking dinner in the crockpot.
Yesterday afternoon when we came home from eating lunch out, we discovered we had no water. None at all. Because we have our own well, we’ve gone through this before and know that someone probably left a faucet or hose running. Turned out to be a hose. Hubby did what he always does in such cases, but it didn’t really fix the problem. Finally, we had water. This morning when we got up–the water ran for a few moments, then quit.
Eeek! I needed a shower, the laundry needed to be done. He told me to try the shower in the new bathroom, said it was on a newer system. Yeah, I got my shower. Plenty of water. Tried the washing machine, water came, then a huge pop of air, then more water. Decided that a big air bubble had caused the second problem with the water. Mystery solved.
Now the phone has lots of static on the line. Is it something wrong at our house–or on the main telephone line?
Frankly, I prefer the kind of mysteries I read and the ones I make-up.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Darkness, storms, cliffs, raging waters - They're all tools to place an audence in a somber mood.
It takes a bit more imagination, talent and effort to turn the mundane into scary. Stephen King did it with Christine, the evil car with a vendetta against people.
Alfred Hitchock did it with The Birds, frightening creatures swooping down and pecking at unsuspecting humans.
Then there's the classic episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, where the coach falls asleep and drowns in his soup. Maybe some of you are too old to remember that one. Too bad. It was a hoot, though a sad one. Okay, that wasn't a mystery, but you get the idea.
Now, get your brains working. Can you think of any books, TV shows or movies where the ordinary turns sinister? Or, would you like to make up one for the fun of it? Come on, it won't kill you.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
So here's my question. What do you do when you are bored to tears with your own writing project? How do you keep going? For me (on this particular book) it's two-fold: keeping a promise to my writing partner and friend, and the fact we'll get the second half of a decent (and very much needed) advance when we turn this puppy in.
What keeps all of you going when you want to turn a flame-thrower on your computer? I want to hear about inspiration and perspiration!
And now back to the perspiring here....
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Contrary to some of my pilot friends, I don’t enjoy flying. Not at all. And my distaste has nothing to do with fear.
“Harumph,” you say. “Don’t believe a word of it. He’s just chicken and won’t admit it.”
“Nay, nay,” I say. I prefer to think of myself as a Gambel Quail, a bird that can fly but prefers the ground. And heck, I even look like one. Replace a Gambel’s plume with a baseball cap, and you’ve got me.
Yeah, that’s me portrayed above. I’m just wearing black-face and war paint. I wanted to look picture-cool.
Seriously, I know how well airplanes are made. I know about the redundancy of their systems, the sophistication of the computers that fly them on a wire. I know there are usually a series of failures causing a crash. Heck, I worked for an aerospace company that made many of these systems, and I spent the greater part of thirty years flying and defending air crash cases. Airplanes are safe, much safer than a car.
But I’ll take a car any day.
Recently, I was forced to fly from Arizona to Florida and back, a trip that would have required six hard days by car.
Well, I would have preferred the drive.
If I’d driven, I’d have toured the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and watched police-drug lord battles as I passed through El Paso. I’d have sniffed petroleum fumes all over West Texas, and snarfed plates of jambalaya in Louisiana. A book-on-tape would have carried me through Mississippi and Alabama, saving me from preacher-central-radio, and I would have landed in Palm Coast, Florida tired but happy.
Instead, I spent two miserable days each way, and I wanted to kill somebody. My wife wanted to kill me.
I’m no sausage. I’m six-foot-six. I don’t fit in a seat built for a midget.
It’s bad enough that I have to stand in line for an hour before I strip down for the TSA cuties who want to wand my private parts. They’re talking smack and chewing on beef jerky strips, occasionally spitting out sinew-bits at me and other unfortunate captives. Then, as I start to tingle in anticipation of actually being next in line, the woman in front of me passes through the detectors. Alarm bells go off. The woman finds a hidden pocket in her moo-moo, and removes something metal from it. The TSA sharpie nods.
The woman steps through again, and the alarms ring once more.
This happens six times. I’m growing old standing behind this woman. And the fat guy behind me has stinky feet. His beat-up Converse All Stars look like they were made in 1956 and have been worn ever since. They’re next to me, just three feet from my nose. I imagine clouds of foot-gas wafting toward me. I turn and look at the man. I see sweat streaming down his swollen cheeks, and his light blue shirt is turning royal blue under the armpits. Deep, dark smiles.
I stare at those shoes, and guess they’ve been worn bare most of their service life.
Where is the EPA when you need them?
We finally board the plane, and wonder of wonders, Stinky turns out to be my seatmate. Yup. Squeezed between my wife and me.
My wife falls asleep immediately. Or maybe she fainted.
I’m in the window seat, and my seat belt receiver somehow slid underneath this guy’s butt, so now I gotta play cutsie with him to fish the thing out. He leans toward my wife ― which is when she went out, I think ― and I pull and tug. One final heave, and the bracket flies free. My back untorques, and my block cracks the junction of the interior fuselage and the overhead bin. I think I lost some hair.
Stinky is a chatterbox. Never flown before. He’s nervous. Which means he sweats more, too. The smell of foot becomes more prevalent. I can’t see if Stinky's removed his shoes, because I can’t move. I’m squashed into my seat like a sardine in a can. Irony is, I don’t need a seatbelt; you couldn’t pry me out of that seat.
Stinky says he’s from Tennessee, so I ask if he knows Chester Campbell or Beth Terrell. I don’t understand a word of his response.
I grin and pretend I’m somewhere else.
Stinky talks of his family, of his trip to Tucson, and other stuff I’m not really paying attention to. Besides, I can’t understand much of what Stinky says anyway. Part of my difficulty is his accent, which sounds a bit Clampet-like. But I can't concentrate either...
The stink, you know.
And Stinky's still sweating.
I pop an arm free and adjust the blower above my head, so it’s flowing full force. I debate where to point it, and then turn it his way. My unconscious wife drops deeper into her coma.
Something’s gotta change, so I tell this guy I’m gonna sleep, hoping this will shut him up. He mutters something and then reaches for the Sky Mall magazine. I turn my head to the right, grateful for another inch of distance from my seatmate, grateful even for the stale hair gell odor of the Naugahyde headpiece.
I’m just beginning to relax, when the seatback in front of me comes crashing into my knees.
My reaction is instinctual. I bellow and slam the back of the seat. The guy in front of me unsnaps his belt and turns around.
“Hey!” he says. “Why’d you do that?”
“That’s what you just did to my knees,” I say. “How’d you like it?”
“You can’t do that,” the man says. “I’m entitled to lay my seat back.”
“No, you aren’t,” I say. “Not when doing so causes me physical injury.”
The man tries edging his seat back, and I counter his pressure. I’ve got better leverage, because I can use my arms and knees as pistons. There's nothing for his arms to do, and he can’t use his legs without flipping the guy ahead of him out of his seat.
So he summons a flight attendant, and when she comes, he starts his whine.
You can guess what he's saying: I’m a big meanie; I won’t let him lay his seat back.
The flight attendant looks at my knees pressed up against the seat, and politely tells the guy to go stuff himself.
Stinky wants to chat some more, and my wife is still out cold. So I yawn, feign sleepiness, and turn once more to the window. I don’t move the rest of the flight.
We arrive at Dallas, and the guy in front of me wants to size me up. He changes his mind when I finally unfurl and manage to stand.
We’re in Concourse B, and our next flight, in fifteen minutes, is in Concourse D.
We make it just as the doors are closing. Now we’re huffing and puffing and sweating. We’ll make wonderful seatmates for somebody, albeit with sweeter smelling feet.
The woman in the middle this time is an old lady. She’s got a pleasant smile, but wants to talk about her grandchildren. Fascinating topic: other people’s grandchildren. Especially on a two hour flight. And our seatmate’s soaked herself in old-lady-perfume. You know the stuff. I think it’s sold at the Instead of Bathing counter in Walgreen’s. I think you can also buy it at do-it-yourself pest control stores.
Of course, this torture extends for the entire flight. And when we get to Jacksonville, our baggage is lost. Somehow it ended up in Bangladesh.
And most wonderful of all, we got to do it all over again in just a week.
Oh how fun.
I don’t know what the 19th century naturalist William Gambel did to have this strutting ground-bird named after him, but I know Old Bill didn’t fly.
Maybe next time, I’ll just quail it to Florida.
That or I’ll drive.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
I was going to write a post on mystery research on the internet, since my last post here was on real world research opportunities for mystery writers. However as I was on Facebook the other day social networking, (okay, messing around, but doesn't social networking sound like I really had a purpose?) I came across a post from IndieBound that I wanted to help spread.
What is IndieBound? To quote from their own site, " IndieBound is a socially conscious movement in support of independent businesses and shopping locally, starting
with indie bookstores.
MakeMineMystery has had posts about independent booksellers before. I think the indies are the one who tend to give new writers a
chance and beyond that, as someone who relies on a small business for my own support, (What? you thought I made a living writing? I only wish!) I am a big proponent of small business. Indiebound
gives writers a chance to affiliate with small bookstores through a website link the same way many do with Amazon. And for
readers, the site helps you find independent bookstores in your area and even search their websites for books you are interested in. They have an Indie Bestseller list and a monthly, Indie Next list which tells you what books, independent booksellers are
handselling across the nation.
And it's not limited to books.The mission of
IndieBound is to spread the word about small business, hoping to help strengthen main street in each community. Talk about a stimulus package! And when you buy local, you know where the money is going. So if anybody is getting a trip to Vegas out of it, you aren't surprised.
message. I return you to your regularly
scheduled blog. And in two weeks, I
hope to be back with research opportunities for mystery writers on the
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
When I’m searching the shelves for a new read, be it in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore or on the virtual shelves of my favorite online store, I do it the old-fashioned way, even in a new-fashioned world. First of all, the title has to appeal to me, then I like to read a summary or the jacket copy and a couple of reviews by reviewers whose opinions I respect. This system works for me—has for years—and I’ve found many a new author to take pleasure in reading from cover to cover, including the writers’ backlists. I’ve also found a couple of lemons, but hey, that happens!
Right now, I’m test driving Peter Turnbull’s No Stone Unturned and it’s a neat mystery so far. I’ll see if he can keep me from figuring it out until the end, though! Then I have another new author to check out – Julie Carobini.
It’s fun to read a new novelist, especially a mystery writer. The mystery writer must engage you, challenge you to solve the whodunit and have a style that appeals to you, in addition to telling a good story with fully developed characters, just like authors in any other fiction genre.
So, if you find yourself sticking to the tried and true all the time, explore and give a new-to-you author a chance. You might just find you’ve discovered a new must-read, and if you’re lucky, s/he has a nice deep backlist for you to enjoy.
Romance with an edge
I am unique to the staff of contributing writers on this blog in that I have never published a mystery novel. I just love the genre, and am pretty darn well read in it. My main genre of choice is spiritual/inspirational with a bent towards humor and mischief. Kind of a cross-over guy. I plan on releasing a novel this year titled, Detective Snoop – a comedic whodunit detective story with some underlying spiritual messages. And it has several elements in it that are essential in a good mystery book. I also plan on writing a true mystery one day. But that requires more learning on my part.
Like any good student of the art he or she is pursuing, I do my studying. Even with a “cross-over” pseudo-mystery like Detective Snoop, I have to be able to include some mystery book elements. Like “clues,” the all important “crucial clue,” and maybe toss in a couple “red herrings” for good measure.
The crucial clue. The one clue that the protagonist finally “gets it” and solves the case. It could be something that points straight at the perpetrator. Like let’s say one character, call him Billy Joe, claims he got a bizarre visitor at his door at seven o'clock in the evening on a certain day. Later on, the detective (or cop, or protagonist, whatever – main character) gets full information about where all the suspects were at that time. He thinks back to what Billy Joe said about the strange visitor at that time, and now he knows that couldn't have taken place. Gotcha.
And the red herring. A bit of information an author throws out there to mislead the reader into thinking someone who is actually innocent is probably the guilty one. These are fun elements in a good mystery and make the case harder to solve. They can also add punch to the beloved “twist” in a well written mystery.
See? I’m learning about this writing a good mystery book stuff.
Funny, the more you study and work at an art, the less you can be just a casual lover of the craft. I am an accomplished musician. Have been ever since high school. I cannot listen to music like most people. I am constantly analyzing it. Wonder why the artist chose that instrumentation? Interesting bass line. Ooops, the vocalist had a bit of slippage between registers on that passage. I don’t think I would have put the bridge in for a third time in that arrangement. Things like that.
When I undertook becoming a writer, a serious writer, pursuing a career with it, I lost the ability to simply relax and enjoy a good book. Now I am constantly analyzing the writing. Why did she switch from “telling” the story to “showing” it for this scene? Interesting shift in tense – not sure if I like it all that much. Oh no, way too many adjectives for my tastes. Wow – great one-liner – wish I’d thought of that! See what I mean?
And now that I’m endeavoring to learn how to write a good mystery, I’m losing the ability to enjoy reading one without taking it apart and dissecting it for analysis! Help!
It’s all about balance. I need a new hobby. Music and literature are both classroom activities for me anymore. I’ll have to take up synchronized swimming or something for my “fun only” times.
Has anybody else experienced what I'm going through? Oh and I need a partner for my synchronized swimming class. Any comers?
Monday, February 9, 2009
From the backstoried mind of Earl Staggs
It’s hard to write without backstory. If past events have a bearing on the current story, we have to tell the reader about it. If something in a character’s history is important to how that character deals with events in the present, we have to give that history to the reader. Yet, if we bore our readers with a long narrative retelling of the past, they may toss our book and move on to someone else’s.
My favorite method of presenting backstory is through dialogue between characters. Instead of letting my narrator stop the story to tell readers about something that happened before, I like to let my characters talk about it.
As an example, the following is a scene from my novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER. Adam Kingston is the protagonist, but he does not appear in this scene. Instead, two other characters talk about him. Adam is a private investigator with certain psychic abilities. I modeled Adam after real-life psychics who use their gift to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes. Their psychic gift does not actually solve crimes, but often provide clues which lead the police in the right direction. So it is with Adam. In the end, it comes down to solid, old-fashioned police work.
I wanted readers to know some of Adam’s backstory, but rather than let the narrator do it, I did it in a conversation between two other characters.
The characters in the scene are:
Brenda McCort: A homicide detective from Baltimore. She has followed a killer’s trail to Ocean City, Maryland, where Adam lives. She believes the killer is now in Ocean City after seeing a report of a similar killing there. She also has another case back home and feels Adam Kingston has information about that one. She is anxious to talk to him about it.
Stuart Wilson: A young (thirty-ish) Ocean City police detective. He and Adam had a confrontation with the killer the night before and Adam saved Stuart’s life.
The two detectives are in Stuart’s office and after discussing the similarities in the killings, agree the same man is responsible for them.
NOTE: A scene doesn’t have to have only one purpose, does it? In addition to bringing out Adam’s backstory, I tried to do some other things in this scene. I’ll talk more about them after you’ve read the scene.
Detective Wilson looked across his desk. "There's no doubt in my mind. It's him."
He'd been strictly business in their exchange of information since Brenda McCort arrived, but he couldn't help wondering if the attractive homicide detective from Baltimore was involved with anyone. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring and she wasn't that much older. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, tops. Dressed nice. Conservative, but nice. Dark blue blazer, gray skirt, white blouse.
She nodded. "I hope we can stop him before he fills any more trash bags with dead bodies." She sat with her legs crossed, holding an attaché case on her lap.
"We'll get him," he said, thinking she had great legs. He smiled at her, making it a smile of confidence and determination, nothing arrogant or cocky. He could ask her out to dinner. Professional courtesy and all that.
Brenda looked at her watch. "It's nearly four o'clock. Didn't you say Kingston was coming in?"
"He said he'd be here at three," Stuart said, wondering if he'd used the wrong smile. "I'm sure he'll show, but I don't think he can tell you any more about last night than I already have."
"Oh, I'm sure he can't," she said. "It's about another case. He may have information on it."
"Anything I can help you with?"
"No, but thanks, anyway. Tell me, though. What do you know about him?"
"I didn't know anything about him until last night. Some of the older guys heard me mention his name and filled me in on his background. We even have a file on him."
Brenda's eyebrows raised. "Oh?"
Stuart waved a hand and chuckled. "Not that kind of file. He's a consultant, a psychic investigator. He works mostly with the Feds, but our department called on him once to help find a missing child. As a matter of fact, he was an FBI agent himself. One of the best, they say."
"So one day he decided to give all that up and buy himself a crystal ball?"
"I'm not sure how that came about," Stuart said, curious about the sarcasm in her voice. "The way I heard it, a few years ago, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Terminal. He took a leave of absence from the Bureau to take care of her. When his wife died, he took it hard. Started drinking, big time. One night his car took out a utility pole and he was nearly killed."
"You got all this from a consultant's file?"
He shook his head. "No. From Martha."
He laughed. "Yeah, Martha, the lady who runs Records. She's been here forever. Martha knows everything and forgets nothing. With her around, we don't need a computer." He laughed again, hoping she would laugh with him. When she didn't, he continued. "Anyway, when I asked Martha to bring up his file, she told me the story behind the story, as they say. When Kingston hit the utility pole, some electric wires came loose and, according to her, he took enough volts to kill an elephant. They didn't expect him to live through it. He did, but he never went back to the Feds."
"Maybe he decided being a psychic was more lucrative."
"Martha's into things like that—UFO's, paranormal stuff, ESP—and she said things like electric shock can sometimes bring out special abilities. But . . . why do I get the feeling you're not a big fan of psychics?"
"Let's say I had a bad experience. But let me ask you something, Detective Wilson—"
He held up his hand. "It's Stuart." He tried the smile again.
She smiled back. "Okay, Stuart, tell me the truth. Do you believe in it, that psychic business?"
"To be honest, I've never thought much about it one way or the other." He was thinking she had a great smile and wondering if it was too late to get a dinner reservation at the Del-Mar Inn. "But I can tell you this much—you remember that multiple homicide in Arizona a few weeks ago?"
She nodded. "The FBI cracked it. A tough one."
"He was in on it and they gave him practically all the credit. You know the Feds. They don't usually give credit to anybody."
Brenda's smile was gone. "Everybody gets lucky once in a while." She checked her watch again. "So where is he?"
Stuart shrugged. "I wish I knew." He examined his own watch and decided to go for it. "By the way, if you don't have any plans for—"
The ringing of his telephone cut him off.
"Excuse me." He picked it up and said, "Wilson." He listened for a moment, then looked at Brenda. "It's the State Police—about Adam Kingston."
So that’s how I built Adam’s backstory into the novel. But, as I mentioned before, I tried to do some other things in the scene in the way of character development for Brenda and Stuart as well as foreshadowing of things to come.
For example, while Stuart is serious about his job, he’s also a bit flirtatious and appreciates an attractive woman with a great pair of legs. He’s also impressed with Adam’s accomplishments, particularly that the FBI holds him in such high regard.
Brenda is all business, but you might have noticed her negative view of psychics. In a previous chapter, she said they were all quacks. This sets up some tension between her and Adam and sparks fly when they meet in a scene shortly after this one.
There are other methods of including backstory and I’ve used them all. Another favorite of mine is a special form of flashback which I call “backflash.” Maybe I’ll talk about that next time.
MEMORY OF A MURDER earned 12 Five Star reviews on Amazon and B&N.
Want a signed copy? Want to read Chapter One for free first? Write me.
Ha! What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? The name Ellery Queen conjures different meanings to different people. For some, it is the 1940’s radio program that comes to mind (find some of these episodes at RadioLovers.com) For others, it’s the various incarnations of the television series, starring Richard Hart, Lee Bowman, Hugh Marlowe, George Nader, Lee Philips, and probably best remembered, Jim Hutton as the fictional sleuth. Films followed, with Peter Lawford and Ralph Bellamy joining the long list of actors portraying Queen.
Reading fans will be quick to mention that the Ellery Queen novels, first of which was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929, preceded all the radio, television and movies starring the popular detective, his father (Inspector Richard Queen) and his assistant, Sergeant Velie. Then there was Ellery Queen Magazine (published by Dell Magazines, Penny Publications), a host of comic books and even jigsaw puzzles bearing the Queen moniker.
But who is Ellery Queen? The character name was also the alias for the two American cousins responsible for penning the novels and creating the image of the puzzle-solving protag. And it is humorous to note that each of the men had aliases of their own: Daniel (David) Nathan, also known as Frederic Dannay (1905-1982) and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofksy went by Manfred Bennington Lee (1905-1971).
Read more about the illustrious career of Ellery Queen at Wikipedia, and this eclectic site chronicling the detective-hero. You can find out more about the magazine here.
Anne Carter is the author of paranormal romantic mystery, POINT SURRENDER. Visit her at Beacon Street Books, and at the Word From Beacon Street.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Ever wonder how novelists decide which of their characters to kill? I was recently forced to kill a character I loved because I had written myself into a corner. I was so upset that I had to stop writing that day. I then remembered something Benjamin Capps told me during an interview:
“Probably no reader of mine ever felt so strongly [about the storyline] or shed a small tear unless I had already done so in the writing.”
Emotional investment in a writer’s characters is undoubtedly what makes a novel successful. If an author doesn’t really care about his characters, why should the reader? But how involved does a writer have to be to make his readers care? That’s a question someone much smarter than I am will have to answer.
I do know, however, that many of us live with our characters 24/7, until the book comes to a conclusion. Then it’s hard for me to let go, which is why I like writing a series. The characters to whom I’ve given birth can age right along with me, unless, of course, I’m forced to kill them off.
After covering a police beat for eight years and writing about the worst aspects of human nature, I decided to write a senior sleuth series. My Logan & Cafferty series features two 60-year-old widows; one a private investigator’s wife, the other a mystery novel buff. In the first book, A Village Shattered, the women are forced to discover the identity of a compulsive murderer, who is alphabetically doing away with their friends. They also discover that their own names are on the killer’s list.
In the second novel, Diary of Murder, I placed them in a motorhome in the midst of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I had previously killed one my character’s sister, but the reader doesn’t get to know her until her diary is found and read throughout the novel. I didn’t shed a tear until the last entry was read.
I like my main characters because they’re witty and sassy, according to one reviewer, and I could never bring myself to knock one of them off. But anyone who threatens them in any way is in big trouble in my books.
Friday, February 6, 2009
When I got the initial edit of Secret of the Scroll (my first published mystery) back from the editor, I shuffled through his nine pages of notes and stopped on this one:
"For some reason you like the color blue. Nothing wrong with that but if it breaks the mood of the story, then we have a problem. You have used blue as follows:
"blue car number one, Israel
"blue car number two, Nashville
"Father Coughlin decked out in blue
"Worker at Kibbutz in blue workclothes
"Blue blazer, and (dark) blue vehicle, shirts
"And the piece de resistence! Jill in oversize blue dress!
"When the reader starts counting the number of times you use something, you've lost him. He's detached from your book. The magic is gone."
Thank God for Word's search and replace function. What Bob Middlemiss mentioned was like the first dandelion in the front yard. When I did a search on "blue," I found the word appeared 48 times in the manuscript. After paring it down for the final version that went to the typesetter, only 17 blue mentions remained. They were spread around over the course of 264 pages.
In subsequent manuscripts, I have found other favorites that turn up way too often. Words like "suddenly." In her book Don't Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden cautions, "One 'suddenly' per book, please."
Another of those unbiquitous terms I have encountered too many times in my prose is "laughed." He laughed. She laughed. They all laughed. I wind up going through and creating some other way to indicate amusement.
Then there are words like "almost" and "about" that should be turned into definite quantities whenever possible. And there's "just," which one blog titled "Just Is a Four-Letter Word" went on to say, "It's a dangerous word that should be used as sparingly as possible."
These are "just" a few of the words that hound me. What about you? What words do you find difficult to eliminate from your writing?
Check The Marathon Murders for a sample of my efforts.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
That's not to say I don't leave the counting at work when I read or write.
Whenever I pick up a novel, I immediately find the last page number and divide by four. That gives me the location of the three major plot points in the book. Act I takes up the first quarter of a story, so somewhere around the one-fourth mark will be a scene that spins the story into Act II. Some people call it a doorway. I usually mark it with a post-it note. I also put a post-it at the mid-point of the book, which is the middle of Act II, and likewise at the three-quarter point which is where the story spins into Act III.
I'll do this for most books, especially authors that are new to me. If it's a book by an author I know won't disappoint me, such as Michael Connelly, I don't bother with the notes, though I still do the arithmetic in my head.
The spin points are such an integral part of the art of storytelling that you can find them very close to those numbers in any good book. The scenes might not begin exactly at that location, because a scene in a book takes several, perhaps many, pages to work out, but, in my experience, the better the story, the closer the plot elements will be to the numbers. On the other hand, nothing happening where it should happen is an indication of a flawed book and I probably won't finish it.
Let's use The Da Vinci Code, as an example. The book has 489 pages so my first post-it note was stuck on page 122. Page 122 is the first page where the Priory of Scion, the shadowy group at the heart of the story, is mentioned. Langdon, the point of view character, is ready to leave the Louvre and make his escape to the American Embassy when he realizes that the P.S. clue left by the dead man referred to the Priory of Scion. Up until that point, we have had the set-up to the story. Langdon has been trying to get out of this murder investigation and return to his normal life. But, when he discovers the meaning of the code, he heeds the call to adventure and returns to the Louvre, giving up his chance for escape. The doorway between the first and second acts closes and he is irrevocably committed to the adventure. To show us that he cannot go back to his previous existence, the author has Langdon attempt to reach the embassy early in Act II, only to find the police blocking the way.
I put the second post-it on page 244, the middle of the book and roughly the middle of the second act. The first half of the second act is sometimes called the testing phase in which the main character learns what he or she needs to know to survive the adventure. Langdon learns that he can't get back to the embassy and that he and Sophie will have to be partners in this adventure. He also acquires some skills at solving riddles, at deception, and at thinking on his feet. He even learns to drive a stick shift.
At the end of the testing phase, in the middle of Act II comes a revelation of some kind. Indeed, only four pages past the post-it on page 244 comes the story of the grail told by Langdon's mentor in whose home they are seeking refuge. This point in the story is also called the crisis because it initiates a low point for the main characters. Sometimes the entire second half of the second act is called the crisis where the main characters experience the "dark night of the soul." In DVC, Langdon is knocked unconscious by the albino monk and Sophie suffers a crisis of faith on hearing the grail story. All of them have to flee the house where they had sought refuge. During the flight, they continue to struggle with the meaning of the clues in their possession. Sophie struggles with her feelings for her grandfather.
The mid point of the story is also where the main character is likely to go into the cave or the belly of the beast. The reader doesn't know it yet, but when Langdon and Sophie entered the mentor's house, they entered the cave of the beast.
I put the third post-it on page 366 for the plot point which spins the story from the crisis into the resolution. All through the crisis period they have been trying to escape from their pursuers and decode the cryptic poem left by the dead man. On page 362 they make good on their escape and on 366 they deduce that the poem refers to the Templar Church on fleet Street. There are still red herrings and clues to figure out, but now they begin to fall into place when the mentor is revealed to be the bad guy.
Maybe, it's because I'm a numbers guy that I find the symmetry of a story, any story, so compelling. Seeing the underlying architecture of a story is as exciting to me as being swept along in the narrative. Some people say that analyzing a story takes away from the enjoyment. Not me. If anything, it adds to my enjoyment, though often times the experiences seem to go on simultaneously in two separate compartments of my mind. Knowing when the curtain will drop on an act while reading the story is like knowing how much time is left in a football game or how many innings are left. It adds another dimension to the action in front of me.
It's not only novels, either. I count the words in short stories and the minutes in movies to find the plot points.
If I weren't writing stories, I might not be so interested in counting pages. Without question, writing has influenced the way I read. I took to counting pages so that I could learn how to plot my own stories. Not only do I read by the numbers, I write and revise by the numbers. If the doorway to the second act doesn't occur one fourth of the way through, for example, I revise until it does.
What about you? Do you count words and pages when you read?
Read "Horns" at http://www.thrillingdetective.com
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Countdown begins for the birth of my latest Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novel, No Sanctuary.
For those who have read other Rocky Bluff P.D. novels, they are about the members of a small police department located in a small beach community located north of Ventura in Southern California. Though different members of department are featured in each book, in No Sanctuary Officer Stacey Wilbur and Detective Doug Milligan have starring roles.
My aim has always been to show how the family affects the job and job affects the family.
In previous books, Stacey vowed to never date a member of the Rocky Bluff P.D., but she has changed her mind after helping Doug on a several murder cases in Smell of Blood and getting to know him better. The attraction continues in the latest book.
No Sanctuary centers on two churches, two ministers, the death of one of their wives, and a pedophile. Stacey is confronted with several major decisions, one of which puts her in jeopardy
The cover is great, after checking the galley proof twice, the book has gone to the printers. Now it’s time for me to get busy with the promotion. I’m in the middle of planning a launch party which will be held in our church (thought it a fitting place for this particular book) fellowship hall at the end of the month.
A virtual book tour is planned for March though I don’t have any definite dates as yet. April is full of exciting events from a library presentation, to a talk to a writers group in a bookstore, and a booth on the coast at the Celebration of the Whales.
While doing all this, I’m also writing another book. Hasn’t been easy–but it has been exciting.
I’ll be posting more about the book later, but I do know it’ll be available from the publisher’s website http://www.oaktreebooks.com/ soon. I’ll also have it for sale on my website http://www.fictionforyou.com
Monday, February 2, 2009
- Mob families, such as in the Godfather, can either turn a character toward or away from crime.
- A threat to a family member - A character may perform extreme measures when the safety of any or all family members is in question.
- The death of a family member - All sorts of possibilities with this one, from determining why the dear one died, to learning something from that person's past which solves a puzzle.
- Following in the footsteps of a family member and becoming a law enforcement officer or some sort of solver of crimes is a positive way to include family.
- Childhood abuse by a family member leading to a villain's psychosis - this one I've used in one of my novels not yet published.
I'm sure there are many other ways to use family when writing mysteries. Can you think of any? Does one of your mysteries include family in a way it moves the plot? Please share.
Morgan Mandel - For a Morgan two-for-one, hop on over to Double M, my daily blog at http://morganmandel.blogspot.com/
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Sunday, February 1, 2009
I'm trying to think if I've been so unkind to my characters. In Two Wrongs, as well as many mysteries, lots of characters are killed off, but that's not being ill. Then again, in Two Wrongs, the two major characters are consumed with a desire for revenge. One overcomes it, the other doesn't. That could qualify as being sick mentally.
In Deadly Dreams, a mystery for which I'm seeking publication, two of the characters deal with sickness and injury, one with hypoglycemia, another with repercussions from an automobile accident. There I've allowed illness to creep in.
In Girl of My Dreams, my romantic comedy with a slice of suspense, I don't recall my main character being sick a day in the story, although the antagonist is definitely mentally ill.
What about you? Do you make your characters sick? Or, do you recall any authors who do? Please share.
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Sunday's topic is Why do you watch the Super Bowl? For the Games Or the Commercials Or Both?