Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sally Goldenbaum: Crafting a Mystery World

By Sally Goldenbaum
Guest blogger

The winner of the autographed copy of Patterns in the Sand is Dave Chaudoir. Congratulations! Please e-mail me at sandraparshall@yahoo.com with your mailing address and I'll get the book out to you asap.

I used to wonder why people wrote mysteries around a theme, like food or knitting or gardening. Why isn’t a plain old murder enough? Who needs herbs and bamboo needles and a trowel when you have a dead body?

I didn’t really know the answer, at first, even though I have, or am, writing two cozy mystery series that do exactly that, one revolving around quilting (at which I’m a failure) and the other around knitting (for which I have a passion that far exceeds my actual ability). But why bring them into a mystery?

Why, indeed.

After some head scratching and pondering, I’ve decided one of the answers for me is that it provides a kind of centering. In a mystery series, you’re not only inviting readers back to follow the same characters story after story; you’re also inviting those characters back. The same ones, book after book. And having some sort of anchor—a ready-made reason for those characters to get together, to interact, to gossip, to grow together and develop their friendship in new ways—is very helpful in structuring a plot.

Okay, I say to myself, why not have them simply live on the same cul-de-sac, like the desperate housewives? Or work in the same office? Or shop in the same stores? And I think the answer is that that might work just fine, too. It’s not unlike a craft that the characters share and it probably works just fine. It seems to have kept the women of Wisteria Lane in business for a while. I think the anchors in mystery series can be a lot of things, and there are probably very clever anchors out there that haven’t even been thought of yet.


But a craft like knitting does something more than just provide a place and an excuse for Nell, Izzy, Cass, and Birdie (my Seaside knitting friends) to gather. It also, I think, injects a sensuousness into the mystery, just like writing about food does. And injecting sensuality into my writing is all-important in pulling readers into the story, I think. Sinking one's fingers into a basketful of Izzy’s buttercup yellow cashmere yarn, for example, or savoring Nell’s garlic grilled shrimp salad with fresh flakes of basil sprinkled on top—and clinking together four glasses of Birdie’s chilled pinot gris—are sure ways to stimulate and sharpen the senses and help the knitters of Sea Harbor explore the intricacies of a neighbor’s untimely death.

In Patterns in the Sand (the second book, just released, in the Seaside Knitters series) the knitters meet to knit, but also embrace a fiber artist who is involved in the story line—so sometimes the craft provides helpful offshoots.

Is it constraining in any way to have to tie the characters—and connect the readers—to this craft? Not exactly constraining, but it joins the list of other elements that a writer needs to be sure are included in the mystery—like conflict, action, clues, description, red herrings. Sometimes I realize that I’ve gone awhile without bringing in knitting, so I have to go back and plug it in here and there—and the story ends up being better for it. A writer friend, Nancy Pickard, talks about the CASES review—does every chapter include Conflict? Action? Surprise? An Emotional shift? And appeals to the Senses? And in writing a knitting mystery, I add “knitting” to the list.

And then I take a break and head for my knitting basket (and the refrigerator).

Learn more about the author and her books at www.sallygoldenbaum.com.


32 comments:

Dave Chaudoir said...

Sensuousness is a key to all good writing. As an anthropologist, it's something I always go for when describing the cultural setting of the society I want to explain; it brings readers closer, to touch, feel, see, listen and taste. Sounds like a great series, Sally!

Sorcha said...

As a reader who is not also a writer, I do not understand all the keys to your craft. But when I go looking for a good book to read, a craft, hobby, or skill set that I am familiar with will draw me to a new author faster than anything else. Because I know there will be an anchor that I will understand and enjoy no matter how complex the mystery itself may become.

Teagan Oliver said...

I think it's got to do with the passion involved. Especially, when characters share a passion for something in common it creates a sense of community within the book. And readers like to identify with that community. Writers tend to think that community has to be a place, it can be a that shared passion, that same sense of goal.That identity is what keeps the readers coming back to the books time and again. Good luck with the books!

Peg Nichols said...

I loved Sally's remark about her passion for knitting exceeding her ability, because I'm at the same place. How to do all steps in finishing a knitting project is as big a challenge as trying to guess the outcome of a good mystery.

Karen Olson said...

I can totally relate to this post, Sally. I wrote a series about a police reporter, which made sense in that she would come across dead bodies. But now I've got a tattoo shop mystery, with a tattooist as the amateur sleuth. Fitting in crime fighting with tattooing is sometimes a challenge, but I've tried to keep a good balance.

Sheila Connolly said...

I wonder if we can sneak the dreaded F word in here: Feminism. Today we have a wonderful spectrum of amateur sleuths, most of whom are female. And women have always tended to congregate (think quilting bees of old)--and of course they talk during their activities. What better way to work out whodunnit?

On a different point of the spectrum, we have women who have professions or use their crafts professionally--so of course they're invested in what they do, which conveniently brings them into contact with a wide range of people.

Can anybody think of any male crafters? The only one that comes to mind currently is Gibbs on NCIS, who builds boats in his basement (and tell me he doesn't caress those planks!). Of course, Nero Wolfe had his orchids...

Anonymous said...

Using a craft is also very "crafty" (sorry about that) becuase you attract readers who not only like mysteries, but enjoy the craft be it cooking or knitting. Great promotion possibilities.

MaxWriter said...

I look forward to reading both of Sally's series and am glad to have discovered them (and to pass on the quilting series to my mother, the expert quilter). And it makes me think a little more about my new protagonist, who is a professor. Maybe she needs a craft on the side!

thanks,
Edith

Jackie said...

I've always enjoyed this kind of mystery, perhaps because of the introduction into other worlds or life styles. I'm not likely to pick up a mystery set in the world of auto racing, however, so there must be more to it than that.
Jackie

Carol said...

As a reader I enjoy when a craft or anything else brings a group together. I've read books where cooking is the theme or gardening. They helped me enjoy the story. I'm a big mystery fan and these books sound good. I went to your site to read about them and I'm sure I would enjoy them both.

Carol M
mittens0831 AT aol.com

Saundra Crum Akers said...

I have not read your books but I look forward to doing so. I've heard others speak of your work. I have not used crafts in my writing but I do set my novels in small town southern Ohio and use local landmarks, history and culture as part of the plot. I have mentioned marquetry and a few other crafts without much discription.

Saundra Crum Akers

janimar said...

I love mysteries and and go for the women sleuths first. I also have enjoyed the mysteries that deal with a certain subject area. For instance, I have always been fascinated by religious mysteries. Then there are always those that deal with some kind of cooking which grab my attention. I also have read and enjoy those with crafts and have even read some for crafts I am not involved with. If the writing is good I will read it.

Sally said...

I am inspired and humbled by all your wonderful comments. I want to write to each of you personally! (Your ideas and support come at such a good time for me. I am trying to make a deadline in June to finish the 3rd book in the series and some of the things said here are just what I need to hear. Dave--I am going to check out and learn from your writing. And Sorcha, and Teagan (I love both your names)--I'm pleased that the knitting is a draw. The idea of 'identity' is such a good way of explaining it. Peg--yay, another passionate knitter who is still learning! (and sometimes I have the same problems in figuring our how a mystery turns out as the sweater I'm working on!)

Karen--tatoos! I heard about your series at Malice and am going to look for it. But our hinges are the same in many ways. I think we both have the opportunity to break stereotypes, too (the "kind" of people who knit and the "kind" of people who get tatoos...)

Sheila...interesting comment on female sleuths. I think when Sinc was started, it was because it was so dominated by males...with all the things males gravitate to (like Travis McGee's boats--). I can't think of any male 'crafters' either, but am going to try.

Edith, I think a professor with a craft would be interesting--and perhaps very helpful in the mystery, too--maybe to identify with students in a new way?

Carol and Jackie -- I hope you give them a try! And Jackie--you're right, I probably wouldn't pick up an auto racing mystery either. But yet I love DIck Frances's horses....

Have to run but I'll be back!
Thanks for all your comments.

Peg said...

Very interesting point, Sally, about the sensuousness of food or a craft. I love the puzzle in a cozy, but I also enjoy the relationships between the characters. I also like being embraced by the cozy world. So much nicer sometimes than real life!

Marlyn said...

When a character is passionate about something, it makes me want to know that character. If it's something that I'm also passionate about, I can empathize with the character to a greater extent.

Helen K said...

I definitely like books with the central character having a passion for crafts - even ones that like crafts that I would never consider doing. It is interesting to read the details of a new craft. Either in the story itself or in a section at the end I like instructions for projects.

Dave Chaudoir said...

Sheila--What about John Lamb's Teddy Bear series? I haven't read any yet but have heard a lot about them. I think Brad, the main character, crafts bears. John Lamb was a former police detective in So. Cal.

I can't think of other craft-based mysteries with mail sleuths, though... I guess we guys don't do that many crafts. I know some retired fellows who cut wooden shapes and other things that their wives turn into villages of people, etc. and they go to craft fairs. That would make a good series. My sisters taught me how to knit, and my grandmother taught me how to crochet, but all I could ever manage was an endless row of yarn-- I botched the turns, always. I guess we guys aren't as "crafty" as women in a yarn-needle sense of the term.

Sally said...

Dave, I suspect you are very crafty~
One thing I sometimes find puzzling is what is defined as a craft, and what is an art form? Quilting, for example--there are art show that exhibit quilts. And Willow in the second Seaside knitters knits but uses her end products to create beautiful fiber 'art'; and my brother (a 'crafty' male) carves wooden mirrors and statues and boxes. 'Art' or 'craft'? He is an artist, I think. But are all who 'do' crafts artists?

Joann Breslin said...

Your 2nd book sounds as delightful as the first one. Congratulations!

Joann

Karen Olson said...

Sally, you're absolutely right about breaking down those stereotypes! I read your first book and saw how skillfully you did that. Your characters are not all little old ladies who just knit and watch the world go by! And my tattooist is a surprise as well. I hope you enjoy my book as much as I enjoyed yours!

Auntie Knickers said...

Re: male crafters: I can't think of many either, but in Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series, Banks sometimes visits his former Chief who has retired, and is constantly working on stone walls (the kind we have in New England, also found in Yorkshire). I always enjoy those parts of the book. In a way it's odd there aren't more male crafting mysteries since in my observation, men tend to bond/communicate better when they're doing something with their hands, whether it's building a wall or repairing a motorcycle.

Sandra Parshall said...

That's an interesting question about male characters. Lots of them engage in sports -- they play basketball or golf or whatever -- and some of them love jazz or rock music. The occasional hero is into cooking. We don't see a lot of male characters making things with their hands, though. Maybe it's not considered manly enough? It really is hard to imagine a group of men gathering to knit or quilt.

I'm enjoying all the comments Sally's guest blog has inspired!I hope everyone will check back tomorrow to find out who won the autographed copy of Patterns in the Sand. I'll post it at the top of her blog, so after you read Liz Zelvin's blog tomorrow, scroll down to today's entry for the name of the winner.

Sally said...

Thanks to everyone who blogged in today. You've left me thinking of lots of things--from tatoos to the use of culture in mysteries, to men and crafts. I am looking forward to reading YOUR books, and appreciate your time and your thoughts.And a special thanks to Sandy who so generously shares her space (and who posts blogs at 1 am!)

Sally

Linda Reilly said...

Mysteries with crafts are so much fun! I recently read one centered around crocheting (which, by the way, featured a hunky guy who joined the women in their crochet group), and loved the way the author wove the craft of crocheting into the solution to the mystery. Your book sounds great, Sally. I can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

I love your comment about crafts centering the story. And, I also see questions about any male crafters.

Actually, I just finished reading John Lamb's The Clockwork Teddy. And, since I just returned from the Pennwriters Conference, I heard him as part of a mystery writer's panel. Just like his sleuth, he's a retired police detective, and he and his wife collect teddy bears. (He told us all about the teasing he got while still on the police force when they found out he'd gotten his then girl friend a teddy bear she really, really wanted.)

Norma Huss

Sally said...

Norma,
I love the added info about the Teddy bear collector. So funny! And it certainly makes me want to look up the books.

Dave....hope you like the book!

Dave Chaudoir said...

Thrilling to win something! Thanks very much. I definitely look forward to reading this book. Thank you again.

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