Saturday, September 29, 2007
Son of a Guffin
When I began a new mystery series several years ago, I never thought of setting it anywhere besides Scotland.
The country is less awash with rain than with blood. For a historian like myself—and like my heroine, Jean Fairbairn—historical MacGuffins line the roads like thistles. I use the word “MacGuffin” not only to mean the object that instigates the story and is relevant to its solution, but because of its Scottish “mac” prefix, meaning “son of”. “Sonofaguffin” makes a great swear word, doesn’t it?
The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series is one of my usual cross-genre blends, part-paranormal, part-romance, mostly mystery. I’ve subtitled it, “Scotland’s finest and America’s exile on the trail of all-too-living legends.” In other words, my Caledonian cop-cum-security chief and my expatriate history professor-cum-journalist find themselves solving murders motivated by a historical or legendary object: the MacGuffin.
In The Secret Portrait, an old man asks Jean’s help taking a gold coin of Louis XIV to the Museum of Scotland. (Her friends Michael and Rebecca Campbell-Reid, from my earlier Ashes to Ashes series, work there.) Jean suspects that the coin comes from the long-lost hoard of Bonnie Prince Charlie, a.k.a. Charles Edward Stewart, the Young Pretender, who was as feckless in real life as he is romantic in legend. The gilt (and guilt) of that legend as well as the glitter of gold leads to murder—and to the first meeting of Jean and Alasdair Cameron.
In The Murder Hole, Jean travels to Loch Ness to write about a stone carved by the cryptic ancient Picts, as well as to interview an American businessman intent on proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster. Nessie, an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in the Scottish tourist industry—and the MacGuffin of more than my tale—is choice fodder for Great Scot, Jean’s history and tourism magazine. Until the question of Nessie’s existence leads to murder. Alasdair Cameron is on the case. And on Jean’s nerves again, not altogether unpleasantly.
“Do you believe Nessie exists?” Jean asks him.
“I’m after keeping my fantasy compartmented,” he replies.
But as a detective, his business hinges on fantasy just as much as Jean’s does. For it doesn’t matter whether what someone believes is true, as long as they’re willing to act on those beliefs.
In The Burning Glass, Jean and Alasdair are a couple, not a thistle and a rose but two thistles. They travel to the Scottish borders to keep an eye on a ruined chapel. I’d originally intended to use Rosslyn Chapel as the MacGuffin—yes, the Rosslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh, the one teeming with intricate stonecarvings and even more intricate legends. But before I could start my own story, Rosslyn was featured in The Da Vinci Code. (Sonofaguffin!)So with the stroke of a pixel, I created Ferniebank, built by the same hands as Rosslyn.
In The Burning Glass, tourists overflow Rosslyn and descend upon Ferniebank, the owner plans its conversion to a New Age spa, and what looks like a simple case of myth-mongering becomes a mad mouse ride through historical fantasy.
“There’s nothing wrong with myth,” Jean insists, while Alasdair retorts, “The danger comes in hiding from the fact that they are myths.”
My MacGuffins are not just objects of memory and desire—manuscripts, jewelry, bones—but legends as well. They proliferate, they mutate, and then they kill. For it doesn’t matter what drives the traffic in myths. It’s a lucrative business, and greed is a time-honored motive. Just ask the man with Prince Charlie’s Louis d’Or and a sense of honor much more finely-honed than the prince’s. Just ask the man chasing a crypto-zoological chimera like Nessie as well as his own ego. Just ask the people of the village that suffers a string of mysterious deaths because one clever author turned several time-tattered tales into a bestseller.
A scene in The Secret Portrait takes place at the Clan Cameron Museum in the Western Highlands. Alasdair, as a card-carrying member of clan Cameron, could tell you that the old Cameron war cry was a promise to feed their enemies to dogs: “Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh!” Maybe the cry of the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series should be, “Sons of the guffins, come here and get story!”
Friday, September 28, 2007
Research: Like Salt to Mashed Potatoes, Part 2
How can the Internet become my best friend?
By Lonnie Cruse
Researching today is a thousand times easier than before the dawn of the Internet. (And is anyone here besides me old enough to remember the excitement of owning your own set of World Book Encyclopedias so you didn’t have to spend time at the library researching a report? Kids today don’t know how lucky they are.) We writers can find information on just about any subject we need to on the Internet. We can type the key words of the subject into our browsers or use one of the many search engines (Yahoo!, Jeeves, Google, etc.) and links to thousands of web pages will pop up, WAAAAAY more than we’ll ever have time to read. And chances are the information we get in these searches will be pretty accurate. I love printing out whatever information I need and keeping it handy without having a ton of heavy books sitting on my desk. Might want to bookmark the best websites you find if you think you’ll be using them again.
Tip: When you connect to the Internet to begin a search for information on a particular subject, check your e-mail, play games, or whatever it is you want to do, many browsers like Yahoo! show the current hot news stories. If one of those news stories catches your eye, check it out right that minute, before it’s replaced by an even hotter news story, even if it’s about a subject you aren’t writing about at the time. If the news item caught your eye, interested you enough to read it, chances are good your subconscious is telling you it would work well in a story somewhere down the road.
A couple of years ago I saw a story about an accident at a nursing home that killed some of the residents and injured others. I followed that story for several days and printed out the pages. The authorities concluded it was an accident, but the “What if?” question kept bugging me, and I thought it would be a great way for a killer to get rid of several victims at once, and hide his/her identity at the same time. That news story became a center support beam for my second mystery. IF your brain is signaling you “What if?” don’t ignore it no matter what genre you write! You might not find that information so easily later on.
Back to researching on the Internet. Recently I’ve been researching botulism as a way to poison a character. Since I’d home canned various veggies and fruits years ago when my kids were small to help supplement the family grocery budget and had read up on safety measures then, I figured I knew a lot about the subject. And we all pretty much know not to buy dented cans of fruit or vegetables at the grocery store. But I figured I’d better check the subject out on the Internet anyhow and make sure I had my facts straight. I knew I’d get better information on the subject on the Internet rather than re-reading my old, outdated canning books. Turns out, the canned fruit I wanted to use probably wouldn’t work because it has too much acid, which helps prevent botulism from forming. And who knew baked potatoes (wrapped in aluminum foil) not kept at the correct temperature before serving could cause botulism poisoning because potatoes are grown in dirt? Certainly not me! I found that information interesting enough to want to use it, either in my work-in-progress or a future story.
Thoroughly researching a subject on the Internet will often lead writers into side issues of the subject, and from there into an entirely different area, giving us not only a wealth of information, but new story ideas as well. Ideas we can use now or later.
When you search for information on a subject, usually the search engines will point you to various websites run by experts who will either have the information you need posted there, or will answer your questions via email. If it’s a health or safety issue, chances are there will be a discussion board you can click into for more information. Word of caution, check SEVERAL websites on ANY subject to gather information as some sites may be phony or running a scam. If several sites give the same information and appear to be run by knowledgeable people in that field, then you’ve hit a gold mine.
Some websites function like dictionaries and/or encyclopedias and will have helpful information as well. And if all you need is a definition, or maybe a spelling or common usage of a word, try http://www.factmonster.com/ It was created for kids doing homework, but adults can get tons of helpful information off that site. And it’s free. There are plenty of free informational sites we can use, so avoid the pay sites.
If you are researching a city to write about, even a small one like Metropolis, Illinois where I live, chances are they have a website with a multitude of info about local businesses, tourist attractions, history, accommodations, transportation, and most important, some even have maps with street and highway names. Extremely helpful if you are writing about a place you haven’t lived in for many years and therefore don’t know the area inch by inch.
By the way, on the search page you will likely see offers to buy whatever it is you’re researching at Amazon or on eBay, but last time I looked, Metropolis wasn’t up for sale at either place.
So, if we writers can’t afford to fly to some romantic or spooky or touristy area to research it for our story, we can find out all we need to know to make our story believable to our readers by researching the location on the Internet. And did you know there are websites with satellite pictures of practically every place on earth so we can “visit” any place we want to from above? A friend recently helped me find a picture of our house taken from a satellite.
We can find information about history, science, romance, famous people, legal issues and laws, anything we need to know, on just about any subject, on the Internet. So if you have no clue where to start looking for research information on a particular subject, start with your browser.
Tip #2: If SPAM email irritates you as much as it does the rest of the world, here’s a tip for getting revenge and finding new character names for your story on the Internet, and it’s free. I have writer friends who use the ‘send’ names from SPAM emails they receive for their characters’ names. You have to admit, some of those spammers’ fictitious names ARE pretty original.
SUGGESTION: Choose any subject you’d like to research and key the term into your browser. Open and read a couple of articles on the subject and print at least one article, map, description, or other piece of information out to save in your research folder.
In the fourth book I wrote, I needed information about a collapsed lung because my character was going to have a serious car accident and I wanted her to have to deal with that particular medical emergency. I asked a friend who is a nurse, and she loaned me a medical book heavy enough sink a ship. We’ll be discussing using experts for research in another post, but in this case, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the book. I keyed in “collapsed lung” to my browser, and I got exactly the information I needed regarding symptoms, treatment, precautions after treatment to prevent a recurrence, etc.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Read A Mystery, Get A Life
As a reader and a writer, I love a mystery. But why? Do I love it for the puzzle, the slow unfolding of the clues and evidence that will show me at the end who done it, er, did it? Do I love it for the theme of wrongs righted and justice done? For the plot, the necessity that in every mystery, unlike certain literary novels, something happens? All of these are pleasures associated with mysteries. However, none of the above provides the burning desire to plunk my money down the minute a new hardcover by a favorite author comes out. I’m a hardcore series reader. I love to return to protagonists I already know and revisit the worlds they inhabit, both in new books and by rereading. And I’ve finally figured out what clinches the attraction.
On the back cover of Margaret Maron’s latest Judge Deborah Knott book, there’s a quote from a review by the Associated Press: “The considerable strength of Maron’s writing lies in giving her sleuth a life.” I read that and thought: “That’s IT!” Judge Deborah is one of my favorites for just that reason. I feel the same about Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, and a number of others.
If I met Deborah or Sharon in real life, I think I’d get along with them just fine. I’ve certainly wished, if not for eleven brothers, at least for a family that got together to make music the way Deborah’s does. I’ve played the guitar since I was 13, and in my folksinging days, my family had a tendency not to pay much attention beyond asking why I couldn’t sing “something more cheerful.” Deborah herself might have liked my mother, who was a pioneering woman lawyer. As for Sharon, I can empathize with her slow transformation from Sixties free spirit with the All Souls Legal Cooperative to businesswoman with a heart and a terrific team.
Kate Shugak, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t think much of me. I’m not rugged enough for an Alaskan, especially someone like the ultra-competent and indomitable Kate. The one Alaskan I do know, a therapist from Kansas, hikes up glaciers in the rain on her lunch hour. When I visited a number of years ago, I couldn’t keep up. Kate (and presumably Stabenow) shares my taste in reading, though. She’d be great on DorothyL. She also has a fantastic bunch of friends.
I suspect those friendships are the key. Like many Americans of my generation, I hunger for community. I’ve had a taste of it at various times in my life, but time, my big-city location (I live in Manhattan), and the nature of life in the 21st century have left me with not only a diminished family, but also friends who are widely scattered and not known to each other. Each of these fictional heroines has a circle of friends, and vicariously, once I open the book, so do I.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Alex Kava's Life of Crime
Bestselling thriller writer Alex Kava grew up in rural
Whitewash is not intended to be series, but I never say never. I do love the characters, especially two of the secondary ones: Miss Sadie, the eighty-one-year-old neighbor who keeps cash in the freezer and drives a 1948 Studebaker, and Leon, the hitman who has his own "standards." It'd be fun to bring them back in another novel down the road.
Was it difficult or energizing to work with a new lead character? What were you able to do with Sabrina that might not fit well with Maggie?
You’ve said that you grew up in a home with few books and that your parents considered reading a waste of time unless it was done for school. Where do you think your love of books and the urge to write came from? Were you encouraged by any adult mentors?
As for adult mentors, I do fondly remember my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Powers, reading to us every day after lunch and how much we all looked forward to it. And I still get chills at the memory of my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Meyers, reading Poe's The Telltale Heart.
As a child, you wrote stories on the backs of calendars and hid them under your bed. What did you write about, and do you still have any of those stories?
What drew you to writing thrillers? What can you accomplish in a thriller that you can’t in a traditional mystery?
I actually didn't choose to write thrillers. My first novel, A Perfect Evil, was loosely based on a couple of crimes that happened in
Shortly after A Perfect Evil was published a reviewer called me "the newest serial killer lady." Readers all over the world seemed to connect with Maggie O'Dell (who, by the way, doesn't enter the novel until chapter seven) and suddenly my publisher wanted a series of thrillers with Maggie O'Dell. At that time I couldn't even tell you what a thriller was and I certainly didn't know the first thing about writing a series. Even now I don't necessarily concern myself with whether the novel is a thriller or a mystery as much as how I want to tell the story and who -- which set of characters -- will tell their version.
How do people who have known you all your life react to your choice of subject matter? Has anyone ever tried to talk you into writing about more pleasant subjects?
My mom, who is a good Catholic mother, reads all my novels but we never discuss them. By now most of my friends are almost as fascinated by my research as I am. Although I'm not sure if that says more about their acceptance of me or their own dark interests.
What aspects of your writing have you consciously worked to improve? What aspects give you the most satisfaction?
I'm constantly working to improve every aspect -- to write tighter, to use more concise description, to make the dialogue sound real, to flesh out even the secondary characters and include research that enhances, not bores, the reader.
It seems to be the oddest of things that give me the most satisfaction. But mostly it's when something I've written really touches a reader. For At the Stroke of Madness I gave one of my characters Alzheimer's Disease as sort of a personality quirk until I started doing my research and realized what a horribly sad disease it is. Luc Racine became an important character in the plot and so did his loss of memory. Recently a reader, whose own father suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, wrote to me and thanked me for portraying the disease in such a realistic manner right down to Luc Racine finding his TV remote control in his refrigerator.
Does anyone read and comment on your work before you turn it in to your editor?
Yes, my friend and business manager, Deb Carlin, reads it. Oftentimes she takes my longhand and keys it in for me, too. She's also the only person I sit and brainstorm with to figure out the twists and turns.
How do you divide your time among research, promotion, and writing? Do you attend any mystery conferences?
It's tough because a writer could literally spend all year doing research, promotion and going to conferences and not writing. For example in 2006 I spent five weeks on the road doing an 18-city national tour for A Necessary Evil. Then because One False Move was chosen for One Book One Nebraska I decided to do a six-week, 35-city library tour across the state. For 17 days it was three women and five dogs in a rented RV. We jokingly called it "The Insanity Tour." Also in 2006 I attended three national conferences, BEA, and four book festivals.
I know some writers who can write anywhere, but I find it impossible to write in airports, hotels and RVs. Yet all of it is important, so you find a way to juggle it.
What do you read for pleasure? What thriller writers do you admire, and what newcomers to the field have caught your attention?
I just finished reading Daniel Silva's The Secret Servant. Now I'm reading Kathy Reichs. I love Carl Hiaasen and Thomas Perry. I've been a judge and the Awards Chair for International Thriller Writers so I've had the honor of meeting quite a few authors in the last two years, and now I'm enjoying reading many of their works: Joseph Finder, P.J. Parrish, Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Christopher Riech, Steve Berry, Jeffery Deaver, James Rollins . . . so many books and so little time.
There are too many thriller authors I admire to mention. For newcomers, I just finished George D. Shuman's second thriller, Last Breath, which was terrific.The character of Sherry Moore that he created in his debut, 18 Seconds is a fascinating character. And for me that's still what makes a good thriller -- just as in any great fiction -- it's the characters.
You’ve had an extraordinary degree of cooperation from the FBI, while some other writers have said they were rebuffed when they asked for help. Why do you think the Bureau has been willing to assist you?
All of my resource connections in law enforcement, including the FBI, have come about through friends and/or readers helping me make those connections. Several of my sources have come to me at national book signing events and offered their assistance with a private phone number and/or email address. I've never had to cold-call anyone. I've been very fortunate.
But once I make those connections I think the sources are willing to talk to me because they know how much I respect what they do and they can trust me. There have been several times that I've had sources sit down and talk to me about open cases, including evidence that hasn't been made public, and they know they can count on me to not divulge anything sensitive. People resources are the absolute best for any research and what they share gives my novels a level of credibility and authenticity that I couldn't get anywhere else.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the next Maggie O'Dell, called Exposed.
Visit the author’s web site at www.alexkava.com.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Critique—STSS: Stop telling, start showing
This is the third critique abbreviation that shows up frequently in my manuscripts. Stop telling about the character, and start showing.
Let’s start with this sentence: “Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia hated it when an ATM went bad.”
The writer is saying to the reader, I, the author, tell you what Marcia felt when the ATM stopped working. She hated. That last sentence is a did this sentence rather than a does this description.
Writing quote for the week:
“Some writers never see the micro-second between does this and did this. That hangs them up forever in the land of telling. If you can see the gap, you can bridge it!”
~Sherry Lewis, romance and mystery writer
Here are three other examples, all involving that blasted ATM machine:
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia’s stomach went from tight to rigid. The closed glass door behind her wasn’t thick enough to deaden the sound of Donald’s car motor idling. He was out there, waiting, and when she returned without any money, he would punch a few numbers on his cell phone, and her sister would die. The machine spit the card back at her. Marcia wrapped her hand around it, leaving one corner exposed between her fingers. Let’s see what damage a bank card could do to eyes.
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia pounded on the machine, screaming obscenities at it. The louder she yelled, the larger the after-theatre crowd that gathered around her. “This is my last chance with Donald, and no ass-hole machine is going to screw that up.” She turned and grabbed a man’s coat lapels. The fabric felt soft and expensive. “I have to get to the airport. Lend me a hundred dollars,” she shouted into the man’s face. Out of the corner of her eye she saw two police officers heading toward her. She unhanded the man’s coat and ran for the exit. Behind her, two pairs of heavy duty boots pounded on the tile floor.
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia stared at the machine. Blink. No money. Blink. No Donald. Blink. No mistake. So that’s what salvation looked like, a blinking green screen in the middle of a grey metal machine. Marcie leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cool metal.
“Are you all right, miss?”
She turned and smiled at the elderly man in the mall security uniform.
“I’m fine, thank you. My guardian angel just stopped me from doing something stupid.”
The first thing you probably noticed is that each of these examples, which are attempts at showing, were longer than the one that involving telling. My rule of thumb is usually takes 3 to 4 times as many words to show as it did to tell. The original example is 22 words; the three final examples range from 97 to 127 words.
Second, the telling example views the world from what the author has concluded. The showing examples view the world from inside Marcia’s head, even though all three are written in the 3rd person. She’s desperate in the first example, a comic figure in the second, and relieved in the third, but I never came flat out and told the readers any of those emotions. I used Marcia’s own body language, dialog, and her interaction with people and things to convey emotion. The same techniques can be used in 1st person POV as well.
Do you have to use this technique every time? Not necessarily. Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward can be summarized.
• Marcia paid the cashier and took her tray to a table at the far end of the cafeteria.
• The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Marcia practically ran for the phone in her office.
• Marcia looked down at her cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?
Unless the infamous Donald is waiting at that cafeteria table, or leading the meeting, or beside her in the coffee shop, there’s no need to go into character angst for every small detail.
How to recognize when telling, not showing is important:
Is this an emotionally-charged moment for the character? If it is,
1. Have you used a verb, particularly a past-tense verb?
2. Is what the character felt shortened into a summary?
3. Is body language, dialog, and interaction used to convey the feeling?
If the answer to the first two questions are “yes” and the last one “no,” you’ve crossed over into did that land. Go back across the micro-gap. Stop telling, start showing.
Monday, September 24, 2007
The Joy of Diction Begins Early
I blogged at Mysterious Musings yesterday about my son's gift for writing. What I have realized recently is that, like me, both of my boys take a certain joy in words and the way that they can express their individuality through the language that they choose.
Here's a recent example. I overheard my seventh grader telling his friend that a boy in his science class had asked him (my son) for the answers. Ian had responded that he most certainly would not give his. I, nosy mother that I am, interrupted here with my concern that a boy would ask for the answers. Ian shrugged dismissively. "He's just annoying, Mom. He's an oily turd." And then, after some thought, he added, "He's a moist foot." I happen to know the boy in question is none of these, but I was impressed with my son's precise diction--with his attempts to convey a feeling with specific words.
My younger son impressed me equally recently with his description of a bright night sky: "Mom, look! The moon looks like a toenail clipping." And it did look like that--just like that. They have the instinctive desire to avoid cliche descriptions and go right for the honest response, which is often a surprise.
Today both boys were playing Playstation, despite the fact that it was beautiful outside for the first time in ages. I expressed displeasure with their indoor game, and immediately my nine-year-old began to complain. "We're almost finished with this level," he said indignantly. "Why would we stop when we've almost beaten the game?"
Ian, more savvy in the politics of manipulation, said, "Graham, don't! If you want to finish playing we must appease the Mom-god, not anger her."
That's my eldest son in a nutshell. Later he made up an "appeasing the Mom-god" dance, which involved some solo hopping and then some collaboration with his beagle, who is ever willing to jump.
Underneath my disdain for their sass, however, is a joyful realization that they are young poets--that they will use their words to describe their worlds, to understand themselves, to control their destinies to the extent that they can be controlled.
They are writers at heart, and I can only be proud.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Shattered: Forensic Glass Analysis
Elizabeth Becka is a CSI and latent print examiner for the Cape Coral Police Department, and the author of Trace Evidence. Her next book, Unknown Means, will be published by Hyperion in February 2008 and deals with a series of apparently impossible murders.
Cops get used to seeing a lot of glass. The term "smash and grab" is still used, and quite literally—most burglars aren't sophisticated enough to pick a deadbolt, when a nice handy brick through the window will do just as well. Then there's the automobile glass, broken in accidents, shattered by gunshots, or just caved in with a baseball bat by someone who decided he doesn't like you.
There are essentially two ways to analyze glass—by the patttern of breakage, or by the composition of the glass itself.
In the case of bullet holes or small punctures in glass, cracks will form around the hole. Radial cracks will radiate outward from the hole, like petals from a flower. Another set of cracks will develop as a series of concentric circles, like ripples. In either case, cracks will end at existing cracks. So if a radial crack from hole A ends in a radial crack from hole B, you know that hole B appeared first. This is absurdly easy to do and quite accurate.
If you take a piece of glass from along the line of a radial crack, the edge will show a series of wavy lines, extending straight from one side of the glass to swoosh along the inside of the other edge, forming a sort of loose L shape. These are called conchoidal fractures. The edge of the glass where the lines are straight (perpendicular) is not the side of the glass that the force came from. This is the forensic scientist's little R rule—radial cracks make right angles to the rear. In a concentric crack, it's the opposite—the chonchoidal fractures DO make a right angle to the side the force came from. This can be vitally important in determining if something was a shoot-out or a shoot-in.
Bullet holes through thick glass will also form a crater, with (as is usually the case in bodies) the larger hole on the side that the bullet exited, and the smaller hole on the side it entered. Higher-velocity bullets will leave a very neat hole. A gun held close to the pane of glass (again, like a human body) will completely shatter it, because the hot gases from the muzzle of the gun escape rapidly and with great pressure. A pane of glass broken with a large stone will look the same.
If you're standing inside and you break a pane of glass, most of the glass will land outside—but some will fly backwards towards you, landing inside the house and depositing tiny shards on your sleeves and clothing.
To analyze the composition of the glass itself, characteristics such as density and color have traditionally been studied. Float glass is created by floating molten glass on molten tin; as a result, one side of the glass will fluoresce. Whether glass is tempered can be determined with a polarizing microscope. I laughed when I saw people on the TV show CSI compare the densities of two pieces of glass by using two test tubes filled with a combination of chemicals to create a density gradient, because this is an extremely old-fashioned technique. It's still quite valid, but very rarely used for the simple reason that glass, these days, is all pretty much the same.
Up one notch from using a density gradient is determining the refractive index of glass by using a microscope and a hot stage. An attachment warms the slide with the piece of glass and a liquid; when the liquid reaches a certain temperature, it and the glass will have the identical refractive index and the glass will seem to disappear. This is a technique guaranteed to ruin your eyesight. After staring at a faint image under a colored filter for so long that you no longer trust your own eyes, well…I could never do it. Most modern labs will have a wonderful machine called a GRIM II which will do this automatically. However—the same qualifications apply. Glass is usually too similar, and while this technique can tell you with certainty if two pieces of glass are different, it cannot be so sure that they are the same.
That takes you to the next stage, the current state of the art in glass analysis -- ICP. This stands for Inductively Coupled Plasma, and it is a large, deceptively simple looking, and very expensive piece of machinery. Very few labs will have equipment like this unless some administrator got liberal with the funding, but your detective could always send the sample out to a larger, more well-equipped lab, which would most likely welcome the submission to justify their expenditure. The ICP can reportedly detail the composition of glass, down to trace elements.
The only other thing I can tell you about glass, from personal experience since I'm always wandering around where hasty burglars have been at work, is that it tends to stick to rubber-soled shoes. A lot.
Visit the author's web site at www.elizabethbecka.com.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 1
Over the next several weeks Sharon will be posting about critiquing/self-editing so I decided to post my workshop on research. Hope you enjoy the series.
PASS THE SALT PLEASE
Why research my writing? It’s just fiction, after all.
We’ve probably all eaten mashed potatoes at some point in our lives, so we know that:
A. If they are salted, we can’t see it.
B. If they are salted too much or too little, we can taste it.
Research to an author’s book should be like salt to mashed potatoes, not too much and not too little. The words should taste just right.
Readers love nothing better than catching writers in errors. Doing our homework is important. Readers will stop reading our books if they think we don’t care enough to get the facts straight, facts like which way a one way street runs when using an actual location, what building is located where on which street, what year this or that world-shaking event happened if we plan on using that information, and so on.
Am I saying we writers can never change things around to suit our story? No. Actually I moved buildings around in downtown Metropolis, Illinois when I wrote my first book, MURDER IN METROPOLIS, but I put a disclaimer in the front stating that “No facades were damaged during the moves.” We can make changes to actual locations, etc, so long as we somehow let the reader know we’ve made them, not mistaken them.
In my second book, MURDER BEYOND METROPOLIS, I portrayed the Brookport, Illinois Police Department as they actually were a few years ago when I first researched them, located on the second floor of a very small, very ancient building that today still houses city hall. The Brookport Police Department now resides in a brand new facility with all the bells and whistles, but I liked the setting of the old building so I used it and put a disclaimer in the front of the book so residents of Brookport would know I’d done my homework. It’s all in the details.
If you think you hate doing research, let me assure you it can be fun. I’m not going to advise you to hide in the back of some dark, dank library amidst the dusty tomes, digging for knowledge. In this class you will learn how to get out of your writing office (even if that’s just your laptop on the kitchen table) and go in search of interesting information. You’ll be gathering tidbits from newspapers, television, the Internet, real life experts, and the ordinary, everyday people around you. And I may be able to get you involved in a high-speed car chase or two, if we’re lucky.
Truth to tell, research is something we writers do every single day of our lives, whether we realize it or not. We file interesting facts away in our office, or in our brains, to use later in a story. We might have to go back and re-research it at some point (no gagging or spitting, please, keyboards are moisture sensitive) but it WILL be worth it.
A word of caution, we CAN get so caught up in researching that we neglect to write. Or worse, we’ve spent all that time learning about a subject, so we’re going to teach every single bit of it to our readers, whether or not they want to learn it. In which case we’ll either insult their intelligence because they’ve already learned a lot of the information on their own, or bore them to death and possibly get ourselves arrested for manslaughter. Use your research, don’t let it use you.
Properly researching our story can bring it alive in terms of setting, character, facts, time frame, and probably a million other ways. And our research will also suggest subplots, new twists, and brand new stories to write. Which is where the handy dandy research folder comes in.
SUGGESTION: If you don’t already have one started, get a file folder and label it RESEARCH. Place any important research information you already have into that folder. You might want to use one of those expandable folders, closed at both ends, so research items don’t fall out.
EXAMPLE: When writing my first book, I decided to take a research trip downtown for a closer look at the courthouse, since the body in my story was going to be found there. After the book was published at least two people told me they went downtown to verify whether it was physically possible to place a body where I’d placed mine. It is. (Wiping sweat from brow.)
I hope you enjoy this series. If you have any questions, please free to contact me.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Research: Gone Fishing
I’ve spent the summer writing the first draft of my mystery set in the Hamptons, not among the rich and famous but among my series protagonist’s housemates in a group house “north of the highway” in an imaginary Hampton located between Amagansett and Napeague on the way to Montauk. I’ve already blogged about what fun I had researching a scene set in a pick-your-own strawberry field back in June. As the plot and characters came into focus, I decided it would be fun to send Bruce and his sidekick Barbara out fishing and set my denouement on the boat. So I wrote my way right up to the scene on the water and made a date with my across-the-street neighbor Bob to go fishing.
Bob is a retiree whose joy in life is to take his boat out on Gardiner’s Bay for bluefish. His wife Pat has long since stopped going along. She neither cleans, cooks, nor eats blues, having had more than her share many years ago. But she graciously accepts Bob’s passion. Bob is in it for the sport, so unless a friend or neighbor requests some fresh caught fish filets, he tussles with the bluefish, striped bass, and sometimes albacore tuna—all game fish that give him a good fight, he told me—lands them, and throws them back. The day before he took me out, he took in 30 blues in about three hours. Of course, he admitted to me that since nobody sees his catch, there’s nothing to stop him saying he was landing four and five pounders when they were really only a pound or two and claiming that the one that got away weighed a hefty ten or even fourteen pounds.
Bob picked me up in his red Jeep Cherokee in time to catch the ebbing tide.
“I hope you haven’t used up all your fishing karma for the week,” I said.
More likely, he assured me, fish yesterday meant fish today. Besides, he’s a veteran who’s been fishing these waters since he was a boy and knows the bay so well he hardly glanced at the screen of his fancy GPS as we pulled out of the marina. In fact, he didn’t “watch the road” or use his hands to steer at all. I didn’t know whether to be alarmed or impressed.
My agenda was to get answers to a long list of questions so I could “get it right” in the scene in my manuscript, absorb the experience, and, if possible, bring home fresh fish for dinner. Two minutes from shore, before Bob had finished showing me how to cast, he hooked and let me land our first bluefish. It seemed to augur well for the day.
“Do you want to keep it?” Bob asked.
“We’d better,” I said, “just in case it’s the only one.”
For the next four hours, it looked as if I may have jinxed us with those words. This is not to say I wasn’t having a marvelous time. It was a gorgeous day, and even though for some mysterious reason, we couldn’t find the usual schools of bait fish churning up the water, with flocks of birds above and schools of bluefish below competing for the chance to dine off them, it was great to be on the water. Bob said it was the worst fishing day he’d had in years. It wasn’t just us, either—ordinarily, where the birds and fish gather, so do a cluster of fishing boats. No boats, no birds, no fish. So I took notes on the boat and the fishing process and got a close look at Gardiner’s Island, Plum Island, and a ruined fort. I learned to cast well enough to stop hooking parts of the boat every time I tried. And Bob told stories.
Since I can’t work the best story into my manuscript, I’m free to tell here how Mr. Gardiner blew the whistle on Captain Kidd. In the 17th century, the first Gardiner in the American colonies bought about half of Long Island from the local Indians for practically nothing. The family got very rich, and the present-day heir still owns Gardiner’s Island, the largest privately held island in the United States. Captain Kidd was hanged for piracy in 1701, although there’s still debate over whether he was just a privateer. So it must have been right at the turn of the century that Gardiner and his son came upon Kidd and his crew burying treasure on Gardiner’s Island.
“I damn you, and I damn your family!” Captain Kidd said, according to my neighbor, Bob, threatening to come back and murder the son if either of them breathed a word about the treasure. Gardiner, not intimidated, notified the authorities, and Captain Kidd was captured, brought back to England for trial, and hanged. The Gardiners later boasted that they dined off solid gold plates that had been part of the pirate’s hoard.
We kept looking for the elusive blues. Finally, after we had given up and just before we reached Hog Creek, the inlet leading to our local community’s marina, we finally spotted a flock of terns wheeling and diving into a patch of churning water. Out came the fishing rods, and I’m glad to report that I came happily home with two or three nights’ dinner.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
That Thing Called BSP
If you spend any time at all on mystery listservs (or any listserv where writers hang out), you're well-acquainted with the concept of BSP -- blatant self-promotion. If you're a writer, you've probably done your share of it. I know I have. Like the weather, it draws plenty of complaints but no suggestions for practical remedies.
We're supposed to promote ourselves, right? We're supposed to talk about our books, make people want to buy them and read them. Get online and promote, promote, promote! Trouble is, the more we talk, the less people want to listen. It's entirely possible for writers on the internet to talk readers out of buying their books.
I've seen it happen again and again. I've felt this reaction to some writers myself. They're the people who show up on the listservs only when they have something to sell -- or, even worse, when they want conference registrants to give them an award. They don't contribute to discussions, they don't offer helpful advice on any subject, they don't talk about anything except themselves and their products. "I want you to buy my books and give me awards, and that's the only reason I'm here" -- this is their underlying message. It's not surprising when such an approach produces exactly the opposite of the desired result. The offending authors would probably be amazed if they knew what people were saying about them privately.
So what's a writer to do? How do we promote our work online without making enemies or boring people to tears?
I can't tell adult professionals how to behave, but I can tell you what I, as a reader and book-buyer, respond to favorably and unfavorably. If a writer contributes to a discussion with intelligent comments and shows that she's interested in something other than herself and her own career, my heart will warm toward her. If an author has complimentary things to say about someone else's writing, I'm going to like him. Through discussions and recommendations, I'll form an idea of what a writer's work will be like, and if it seems appealing, I'll go looking for it. If I get hit over the head every few days with BSP ("Guess what wonderful thing has happened to me NOW!"), I'm going to develop resistance to both the writer and the work.
Sure, I like hearing that a new book has been released. But I don't want to hear about every single review and every single interview and every new print run. I think all writers should stop before we post such information on a listserv and ask ourselves, "Who besides me really gives a darn about this? How many people will I be annoying if I post this?" Some information belongs on a writer's personal web site or blog and nowhere else.
I am on one list, the e-mail discussion list of the Sisters in Crime Guppies Chapter, where BSP is freely allowed because the entire purpose of the group is to help people get published. Each achievement is a validation of the group's worth. Even there, though, some members complain about being inundated with BSP. It's not surprising that they would hate it even more on a list with a broader purpose.
I know that many people share my distaste for excessive BSP online. I know because I've discussed it with them. Yet it continues unabated, like junk mail, everywhere we look. That makes me think that either (1) a majority of people just love reading BSP, or (2) a lot of people would rather quietly unsubscribe from a list than complain loudly enough about its content to provoke a change.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Critique—VSOP: Very Special Old Pale
This is the second in the series of five blogs about comments my critique partners have made so often about my work, that I developed a quick abbreviation to mark manuscripts. Today’s abbreviation is VSOP.
Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) Cognac is a brandy, is distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes, grown only in the region of Cognac, France. To carry the VOSP label, the brandy must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, and aged at least two-and-a-half years in oak barrels.
When I write VSOP in the margin of my manuscript, it mean condense this material down. Find the key, the most important information or feeling in this material and extract it, so that every drop—that is every word—counts. VSOP often identifies back story that will work better if distilled down into context.
Back story is anything that happened before the book begins, whether it was five minutes before or twenty-five years before. Here are some common ways writers try to sneak in back story and hope the reader won’t notice:
A prologue, especially one that happened a long time in the past or that is from the victim’s point of view. Okay, I’m going to put on my personal opinion hat and say that I absolutely despise prologues, and I find this “taste of the past” particularly offensive. I’ve settled in to think that the book takes place in 1956, and it has a dark tone, when bam, I’m suddenly transported to an amusement park in 2007, as Chapter 1 begins. It makes me reconsider if I really want to read the book at all.
What my friend, the writer, Candas Jane Dorsey calls Rod-and-Don, using dialogue to convey back story.
“Well, Don, every mystery reader knows that cyanide has a bitter almond smell, but very few people are aware that, due to an apparent genetic trait, some individuals cannot detect any odor to cyanide. Dr. Banton had that genetic trait himself, which makes it unlikely he he had any suspicion at all that his spiced almond tart was laced with cyanide.”
“Wow, Ron, who knew that about the professor?”
“Well, Don, anyone who had had his organic chemistry class would know. He always mentioned it in class.”
Very akin to Rod-and-Don, the expository lump. One of my favorite, read-again books is “Written in Blood,” by Caroline Graham. In it, a motley crew of would-be writers invite a famous author to speak to their writing group. One of the writers asks the famous author for advice:
“I write spy stories. . . .I’m very interested in armoured vehicles—the one-ton Humber Hornet especially. I’ve written roughly ten pages describing it’s various functions. Do you think that’s too long?”
“I do rather,” said Max. “I’d’ve thought your readers will be wanting to get back to the plot long before then.”
Context is just enough detail to make sense to the reader plus the emotional response of the POV character. Just like Ugni Blanc grapes, a copper pot still, and an oak barrels are essential to make VSOP Cognac, the emotional response of the POV character is essential to context.
I was introduced to a woman at a party. I said, “How do you do.” She said, “My father raped me when I was five. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a breast cancer survivor. Who are you?” I thought, I’m the person who is heading for the other side of the room. She had revealed too much, too soon, and I had no desire to hang around and hear more.
I took a pottery class one winter. The instructor was an affable man in his thirties, who took time to get to know every one in class, but was very circumspect about himself. One morning, as I was making up a missed class, he and I were alone in his studio. As I worked on the wheel, fashioning a bowl, we chatted about families. I asked if his parents lived in town. He replied, “My mom lives in Vancouver, but my dad is dead. He was eaten by cannibals in New Guinea.”
I stopped the potter’s wheel. “You’re not kidding, are you?”
He wasn’t. His father had been on a cruise and his group, separated from the rest of the shore party, had been kidnapped. Because we had gotten to know one another, and because we discussed this tragedy in intimate circumstances, it hit with much more impact.
The woman at the party was back story; the potter was context.
Donald Maass, the agent, writer, and teacher, proposes a very strict ban on back story. Absolutely no back story for the first 100 pages. No prologue, nothing snuck in as dialog, no expository lumps. Okay, I can hear you whining, do I really have to do this? It’s a challenge, not a requirement. Try it and see how much better your book reads.
Mary Stewart and Her Literary Children
Happy Birthday to Mary Stewart, my favorite writer, who is 91 today. In her honor I shall discuss something I've blogged about before: the notion of thematic repetition.
Sometimes when I read mysteries I feel that I am reading, along with the story, a hidden text of the author's subliminal intention, or perhaps a repressed desire. There are always patterns, recognizable repetitions in an author's work--beyond the recurring setting or character. Sometimes there are themes that return in different guises. Maybe the author is continually exploring issues of abuse, or unrequited love, or class snobbery. And sometimes I wonder--does the author know I see this? Does the author recognize the pattern at all?
In the case of Mary Stewart, my favorite author, it's the pattern of boys. Boys are an important part of many of her novels, and they range in age from about seven all the way to the teens. Mary Stewart herself was married but childless, and I always felt that I was seeing her desire for a son in these stories because of the loveable boys she created, the sweet, adorable, huggable boys who engaged so sweetly in memorable dialogues with Stewart heroines.
The first boy, of course, is David Byron in Madam, Will You Talk? This boy is protected by the heroine, Charity Selborne, from a man she thinks is trying to kill him. (Can't go into too much detail here). He is seen as vulnerable, despite his age (thirteen), and very much a little gentleman, despite his love of playing by the river with his mutt, Rommel. Charity falls in love with the boy in the novel, and the reader falls in love with him, as well.
Then there is nine-year-old Philippe, the Comte de Valmy, in Nine Coaches Waiting. Not only is someone trying to kill Philippe, but the bullet whizzes right past his head while he is in the charge of his young and devoted teacher, Linda Martin. After a series of events which build growing suspense, Linda goes on the run with Philippe in order to protect him. Before this, however, there are some lovely dialogues that establish her growing closeness with Philippe, as in this conversation where they discuss bears in the Valmy woods, and Linda tries to teach Philippe English:
"Then I hope to goodness we don't meet one today."
"They are asleep," said Philippe comfortingly. "There is no danger unless one treads on them where they sleep." He jumped experimentally into a deep drift of dead leaves, sending them swirling up in bright flakes of gold. The dirt was fortunately bearless. "They sleep very sound," said Philippe, who appeared to find it necessary to excuse this failure. "With nuts in the pocket like an ecureuil."
"Skervirrel. Perhaps you prefer we do not look for bears?"
"I would really rather not, if you don't mind," I said apologetically.
"Then we will not," he said generously. "But there are many other things to see in the woods, I think. Papa used to tell me of them. There is chamois, and marmottes and the foxes, oh, many! Do you think that when I have ten years--"
"'When I am ten.'"
"When I am ten years old I can have a gun and shoot, Mademoiselle?"
"Possibly not when you are ten, Philippe, but certainly when you are a bit older."
"Ten is old."
"It may be old, but it's not very big. You wouldn't be big enough to use the right gun for a bear."
"Skervirrel. I could have a small gun for skervirrel when I am ten?"
"Possibly, though I should doubt it. In any case, it's what they call an unworthy ambition." (from Nine Coaches Waiting, c. 1958).
Phillipe is most loveable, and so is the seventeen-year-old Timothy Lacey, a boy who accompanies Vanessa March on a flight to Vienna in Airs Above the Ground. Timothy is an affable boy, misunderstood and largely ignored, Vanessa thinks, by his socialite mother, and so a bond is formed between the Vanessa and Tim. When the boy cannot meet up with his father in Vienna as planned, he continues to accompany Vanessa to Oberhausen, where she must try to find her own husband. Much of the charm of the book is due to young Tim and his relationship with Vanessa.
The boys in Stewart's books bring out the nurturing instincts of her heroines, and it reveals a maturity in them that they did not always realize they possessed. In This Rough Magic, a young, handsome Greek teenager named Spiro goes missing, and Lucy Waring, the young English protagonist, is distressed by this and eager to help find the boy and delve into the other mysterious happenings near her sister's house on Corfu.
In a similar manner, Nicola Farris, the English heroine of The MoonSpinners, wants to help a man named Mark find his young brother Colin; both men have witnessed a crime, and Colin has been taken captive. Mark fears for Colin's life, but is gunshot, and must depend on Nicola to determine the boy's location and whether or not he is still alive.
There are other patterns, of course, in Mary Stewart's books, and some elements of the romantic suspense novels hint at themes in the Arthurian novels that come later. But it was these stories that first captured my imagination, and I still wonder about them, about her, and whether these boys were the children of her heart.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Canada Calling: Dennis Richard Murphy (guest)
Dennis Richard Murphy is best known for his crime fiction short stories, having been nominated four times in four years for the Canadian Crime Writer’s Arthur Ellis Award. This year—fifth time lucky—he won the prize for “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, a short story that appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in August 2006.
He is an award-winning filmmaker, primarily of documentaries and including a stint as Head of Documentaries for the prestigious National Film Board of Canada. His own films have ranged in subject matter from peacekeeping in Bosnia (the Gemini-nominated “Balkan Blues”) to “Manhunt”, a thirteen-part factual chase series on History Television and National Geographic.
This summer, living and working on a Georgian Steel Housecruiser named Meta IV in a Toronto marina, he has completed several short stories and (finally) his first novel, the latter titled “Darkness at the Break of Noon” until his agent changes it to something that she feels will actually sell books.
PDD: How does writing a novel benefit from an expertise in writing short stories?
It doesn’t, other than the fact that writing anything is good practice for writing anything else. The short story is like a 100-yard dash (or is that metres now?). All the training, regimen, focus and preparation is devoted to that finite nine seconds or so in a world where success is measured in tens of thousandths of a second. Similarly, the short story is a study in concision, in compressed illustration, a storytelling in which character and place, history and motivation are refined to fit into a finite form.
PDD: And what’s that form?
Well it’s often as simple as a length defined by the publisher or editor as in “I need five to six thousand words” or “Not a damned comma over three thousand because we’ve already sold the surrounding advertisements for local businesses”.
My first published short story, “The Grafton Girls” appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine at 12,000 words thanks to the kindness of editor Janet Hutchings. Other than suggest to me that such lengths were the purview of firmly established crime writers whose name on the cover would sell magazine copies, she helped me shape the story in terms of its impact rather than its length. The final version, in fact, wasn’t much shorter than my submission but I learned how short “short” stories should be. (And I learned what a great editor does and what a help it is to a story-obsessed writer).
Now it seems that five or six thousand words is what it takes for me to tell a story without crossing over into that loping pace allowed in novel writing, yet still offering enough literary real estate to develop people and themes and attitudes. That said, I wrote a story for the Osprey newspaper chain this summer (which claims up to half a million readers). My first legible draft was about 4,000 words and I cut it to the requisite three thousand. It reads well but I feel that I pared it too much, like someone emery-boarding their fingernails until the blood begins to flow. Ouch. Too much, although no one has commented on it.
PDD: And writing a novel?
The marathon rather than the dash. The need to pace, the demand to vary sentence lengths and moods and characters and places. The opportunity to lope, to be more extreme about the dynamic range of actions, interactions, tensions, emotions, and plain old description. I like stories with a great sense of place: Dave Robicheaux’ New Iberia (James Lee Burke), The Honorary Consul’s Argentina (Graham Greene), Arthur Simpson’s Turkish jail (Eric Ambler), John Cardinal’s Algonquin Bay (Giles Blunt), and many others who use Boston (Lehane) or Detroit (Block) or Paris (Simenon) or Italian towns (Dibden) and Swedish villages (Mankell) as the canvas for their crimes or solutions. A taste of place takes time and a hundred-thousand word novel simply offers more opportunity than a three-thousand word story.
PDD: So how does writing of one help or hinder the writing of the other?
The short story demands attention to every word, every comma, every redundancy. (I know one writer who does an “ly” search to exorcize adverbs). In a short story here is little room for searching, only for finding, no room for repetition, only room for moving forward. I’ve heard it said that removing a single word from a short story should change the story. That’s extreme but it’s representative of the intense glare one shines on a such a piece of writing. The first draft is processed through a series of readings and edits that threaten to destroy it. To use that skill, that density of expression, that number of abstract brushstrokes to write a novel would overwhelm any reader. Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” is an example, as is Michael Chabon’s new book “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, both (adverb alert) immensely enjoyable, both extremely well researched and craftily written, but dense as chocolate-peanut butter fudge and (for me) only palatable in small doses.
I find writing short stories therapy for writing a novel and vice versa. After a week or so buried in the multi-dimensional plot and character complications of a novel it’s refreshing to suffer the supposed limitations of a short story with its minimal cast of characters and necessarily more linear plot. Likewise, after a session of shining an intense light on every damned syllable of a short story it’s pure oxygen to sit back and write a descriptive package without concern for acreage, even if you hack it down to size later.
PDD: Do your short stories have a theme? Something that links them together?
I didn’t think so, until I spoke one night at an Authors’ gathering. I was billed as the crime writer and I suspect, from the questions asked after some readings, that the crowd expected me to be some Stephen King harbinger of the deadly dark side. I read a few excepts from my short stories—it’s a lot easier than trying to read a short passage and contextualize it as part of a large novel—and opened things up for questions. One woman seemed especially disappointed. “You’re not an evil person,” she said. “All your killers have good reason to do their murders or whatever. I wouldn’t blame any of them for what they do. In fact the world’s a better place without the people they killed.”
She was correct. In “Dead in the Water” one man local to Algonquin Park kills a man he calls “the painter” who he feels usurps his attachment to his lifelong home, who only sees the wind-bent trees and broken beaver dams and steals them—along with his killer’s lady friend and his wartime experiences.
In another (“Death of a Drystone Wall”) a senile man on the Quebec-New Brunswick border lives in his Acadian cultural past. He remembers too a man he killed—an abusive husband who murdered the woman our hero loved. He buried both of them under a dry stone wall about to be exposed by construction of a condo development.
In a third, (“The Sound of Silence”) a man positions himself with a high-powered rifle in a neighbouring child’s tree fort to kill the political VIP who dismissed him in his University days, who stole his girlfriend, who turned down a business contract for window replacement that would have made a fortune and who became a politician legislating against his interests.
There are other examples. I didn’t realize that many of my killers were highly moral human beings who had been wronged or who had committed a crime that reader’s might condone or even approve of.
PDD: Do you think that’s a Canadian thing? An apologetic stance for a crime committed?
Good question. Aren’t we always saying “Sorry”? I don’t think the rationalized murder is a Canadian thing, more some psychosis of my own, some frustration with justice undone or unresolved lives. But I do think there’s a Canadian aspect to writing—including crime writing—for those of us born in Canada at least. Thirty-five yeas ago (1972) Margaret Atwood wrote a treatise called Survival in which she explored themes and links in what became known as Canadian literature or Can-Lit. Her work shows common themes of loss, nature, weather, metaphors as the child of French and English cultures, with sisters from England and brothers from America…
She wrote a follow-up too, in 1995. “Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature”, an attempt to find the holy (to us Canadians) grail of “Canadian identity”. She writes: “Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it.” She suggests the Canadian flag is not simply a red maple leaf on a white background: “Look harder. It’s where someone got axed in the snow.” (Worth noting that Atwood is no stranger to crime fiction—she was nominated by Crime Writers of Canada for an Arthur Ellis for “Alias Grace” as Best Crime Novel in 1997 and lost out to Peter Robinson).
That said, I’m not sure that setting a novel or a story in cold weather or treeless plains is Canadian, just as I’m not sure that Jim Carrey, John Candy, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Gene Levy and others comprise some thesis on Canadian comedic skills. Certainly we wish to be rid of the stereotypes regarding weather and geography, especially in America from whence people arriving at the border with skis on racks in midsummer are apocryphal. (Note: Toronto is 900 miles SOUTH of Duluth Minnesota and on the same latitude as the northern border of California. Another note: Buffalo gets a lot more snow than Toronto even though they say it all comes from here which it doesn’t).
In my own, unresearched opinion, however, Canadian editors are the filter for what they consider Canadian-ness. Case in point: In 2004 I won the Storyteller Magazine Best Canadian Short Story Award for “Dead in the Water”, the already mentioned deathbed confession of the man who killed a “painter” who became famous for his pictures of what this man felt was his land. Good Canadian story eh? Mysterious death of Canadian artistic icon explained at last, albeit fictionally.
The next year I won the same award for a story about the Acadian man about to be exposed as a murderer when a wall in an otherwise vacant lot is about to be excavated for time share properties. Acadians in New Brunswick, the locally well-remembered diaspora that had them ending up in Louisiana as “Cajuns”, the threat of progress exposing a piece of good old Canadian history… another great Canuck story, right? And another award. I’m on a roll.
I wanted the hat-trick. Who wouldn’t. Three for three. The next year I wrote “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, a story about a mentally deficient homeless man in Toronto who becomes involved in a tug of war between a homeless woman who is not really homeless and an elderly military man who is homeless but with a terrible secret. (No one is who they seem, hence “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?”). It was a good story, a bit complicated like I like them. I worked hard at it and sent it in. Not a nomination, not even tenth place, not even a wink. I was curious and asked why. “Not up to your normal standards”, I was told. (I hadn’t written enough yet to have standards.) “Not very Canadian,” said the editor, whatever that meant.
I ate the crow and sent the story to Ellery Queen where Janet Hutchings published it last year as quickly as she could and it received the Arthur Ellis nomination and won this past June.
I’m convinced that the Algonquin Park story and the New Brunswick story were acceptable in Canada because they dealt with the relatively issue-less historical aspects of out country. It wasn’t that Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t Canadian—it was an editorial insistence, or at the very least a preference, that we don’t have any homeless here. Or perhaps we don’t have any homeless in Ottawa where the magazine is published.
My standards or skills hadn’t slipped as it turned out. It was just that my societal focus was unacceptable to the publication’s concept of my country. Perhaps that means Canadian writing in Canada has to be about nothing deemed socially important. Or am I bitter, still pining for that hat-trick that can never come?
PDD: Are all your stories issue-oriented?
I guess so. I don’t set out to make a bald-headed statement, just to write a story with a crime at its centre that has something to do with the world we live in. But I’ve been making documentary films for a long time and I suppose my feelings about issues are always there and ready (and more than willing) to be tapped. So yes, the issue of undeserved iconic respect, of cultural trespass, of historical metaphor, of people who successfully tread upon the weak, of righteous retribution… all this stuff is fodder for story telling, and maybe for committing fictional murder.
PDD: Who’s the market?
Well I’m not sure there is a market for social issue crime writing. But there is for short stories, if market means where do they appear. It’s not about money—I’ve been paid nothing to thirty-five dollars to five hundred dollars for stories without respect to length or the time taken to craft them. It is, I feel, a good way to get my name in front of people as a good writer, and when that writer has a novel published there may be a few more readers conscious of his writing than if he hadn’t produced short stories.
Like any submission to any body that makes decisions on your work, you have to know and understand the market of the people to whom you are submitting. Storyteller Magazine (despite my irrelevant personal disappointment) is a fine publication and probably publishes more first-time Canadian short story writers than anyone else. And not just crime—they are not a crime or mystery publication. They’ll want stories that are Canadian (or what they feel is Canadian) although a friend of mine sold them a story based on surviving a Florida hurricane. Editor Melanie Fogel is extremely helpful and professional, a talented woman with a credible short story writing record of her own.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchock Mystery Magazine are sister publications and their editors (respectively Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan) are wonderful women and helpful editors. Janet attended the Arthur Ellis Awards in Toronto this year, for which I was grateful—now that’s support for a writer. Buy copies and read their magazines and others. Understand what they want from writers before you submit anything. They sell a lot of magazines to older people so, even if eighty is the new sixty, don’t use unnecessarily abusive language or dip too deeply in the pool of unmitigated gore.
After getting my first story in EQMM I submitted another with dreasm of serialization. After all, if they liked that one, what about another with the same protagonist in the same town. Wrong. I was told their readership was primarily urban. A rural story was refreshing once in a while, but not twice. Of course why would they publish it if their readers don’t want to read it? Do your homework. Editors and publishers are happy to tell you what they want, either by letter or on their websites.
Speaking of websites, follow their rules. If they want a manuscript submitted by snail mail, printed in Times New Roman, double spaced on eight and a half by eleven white unlined paper, do it. Don’t email them a submission in your favourite font, or don’t email them at all if they don’t ask you to. Don’t send them attachments that gum up their office computer memory. Do what they ask and they are more likely to do what you ask—publish your story.
It doesn’t matter who the publisher is. Do the same work: find out what they publish, who their readers are, what their submission rules are, and follow them. None of us are so special we can bend the rules to fit us. They make the rules for what they consider good reasons. Listen to them.
On the other hand do NOT ever sign over anything other than first publication rights. (The best of them like EQMM and AHMM will not even ask). The rights to your story should return to you without qualification. Maybe someone will want to include you in their anthology of crime stories with a certain theme or for a certain period.
PDD: What about anthologies? Is that a market?
More of an after-market perhaps. At least at first. My first anthologized short story was one that appeared in Ellery Queen (“Sound of Silence”) and was discovered by Editor Ed Gorman who was putting together an anthology of the best crime stories of 2004, I think it was. It’s gratifying, not only the recognition but I was paid again for a story I’d already been paid for. “Money for nothin’ and the chicks for free” to quote Dire Straits, even if it was positioned as the last story in the book.
My “Dead in the Water” was included in an anthology of the same name (which is why I received first position I bet). The stories were all crimes that had happened on or near bodies of water. Again, the cheque was in the mail and no alterations to the story required.
I suppose word about my stories was spreading. I was asked to submit an original story to a publication comprised of stories that had appeared in summer editions of a newspaper chain for some years past. Each tale took place in a small Ontario town, not surprisingly a town where an edition of the newspaper chain appeared. I went to the closest available town (Cobourg) and walked the streets around the old town and the harbour for a couple of days so I could place the story credibly. “Mystery Ink” was published earlier this summer by Ginger Press. The real prize was inclusion as one of the six writers included in the summer newspaper series this year. It paid more and I was able to write another story set in Cobourg (a town I have come to like enough to move there) with the same main characters. They weren’t concerned about its rural feel—that’s their market.
Anthologies arise from the book-selling plots of those who publish them. This fall Crime Writers of Canada members have submitted short stories for a Christmas publication, “Blood on the Holly.” I set out to write a rather light-hearted seasonal story, maybe including some poisoned Christmas cake. It didn’t come out that way. “Buon Natale Johnny Toronto” became a surprisingly (to me) dark story about Gina, an Italian grandmother who is resentfully hosting her dysfunctional family for a traditional Christmas dinner. In walks her tattooed and pierced granddaughter with her new boyfriend—the spitting image of the Canadian soldier who raped Gina and left her pregnant after the fierce battle of Ortona in 1943. It took a lot of research to get the setting and the factual aspects of the story correct and I believe it’s one of the best stories I’ve written.
PDD: So you’ve written your story. It has all the elements required. It is submitted the way they publication likes it. They publish it and pay you, maybe send you some copies…
Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock send you three to five copies and offer you a good deal on extra copies. Storyteller gives you two I think and a deal for others. Anthologies are less generous, perhaps because the books cost more to produce and there are more authors to service. But buy some before they become utterly unavailable.
PDD: Well that’s the question. Each issue of a magazine is only on the shelves for a short period of time. How do you deal with a short story’s short shelf life? What happens if someone comes to you a year after the story was published and wants to read it?
It’s the bane of the short story writer. Anthologies are at least in book form and possibly have a longer shelf life than, say, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. But those magazines pride themselves on their back issues, so they are available and the money goes to keeping the magazines alive which is a good thing, in my opinion, for all of us.
But I always feel a bit weird asking people to go buy a magazine back issue or even an anthology if it’s just my story they want to read. I mean why should I pay five bucks for one story, even if there are five or ten others in the book or magazine.
If they want to read it because they want to make some judgment as to whether or not my work deserves coverage or review or to be included in some scheme of theirs that will pay money, I usually email it to them. I make sure I include copyright information in my name and I often change something in the story—perhaps the name of a character which is so easy with Find and Replace—so that if anyone disrespects my authorship and uses the story without my permission I have some legal recourse. Don’t be paranoid, but be careful. It’s your blood on the page and you deserve respect for that.
If they want to read it because they’re an old friend who can’t quite bring themselves to believe that the guy in the bar who talks so much and so constantly about writing actually does it, I usually send it to them. I seldom hear back—I don’t think they read it, other than the title and the byline. It doesn’t come up in the bar, other than as tacit acceptance of your unimaginably dumb hobby.
That said, these little treasures might have some value some day, so I keep them stashed on jump drives and burnt onto discs in the fantasy that someday someone might want an anthology of stories in which the theme is me and my writing or that I will be asked to produce a series of stories that share characters and locations and through them develop a longer, grander arc in the storytelling tradition of a novel, when in fact, a collection of short stories and a novel become the same thing. I think that’s full circle, isn’t it?
PDD: Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to leave you with a poem. A crime poem, unfortunately a category for which there are no big prizes, nor, I imagine, any prizes at all. If a short story can be deemed a process of finite literary craft, then a poem is word sculpture. This one was published in Ellery Queen for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars (in American funds, which made it about thirty bucks Canadian at the time). It also elevated me instantly to the precious (to me) category of published poet, something that, as yet, has impressed no one who reads my CV. Except me.
One famous crime writer, my friend and Toronto neighbour Peter Robinson, was a published poet before his stellar Inspector Banks series was launched. And while I’m name dropping, I have an autographed book of Ian Rankin’s (he reads Ellery Queen regularly or at least when he has a story in it) dedicated to me as “The Crime Poet”. If Rankin is that willing to award that prestigious title to me it should prove no one out there is vying for the honour. So I accept.
Here’s “Final Escape”, firstly (and lastly, for adverb lovers) published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in November 2004. I hope you like it. Thank you very much for having me on Poe’s Dangerous Daughters. It’s been a pleasure.
By Dennis Richard Murphy
Muffled men in rubber boots are digging late at night.
They grunt with every pound of earth they shovel from the site.
In dark cloth coats and baseball caps, considerate of death,
Their flashlights cut the misty air and backlight puffs of breath.
The stillness of the early hour makes loud the sounds of men.
By shovelfuls the pile grows higher: “They buried deep back then”.
Now deeper dug and panting more, no one no longer talks
When flashlights freeze and breath is held as someone hits a box.
Renewed, they dig around the sides and bring the thing to view,
A fiberglass sarcophagus, the handles rusted through.
“A plastic job, the rage back then,” says one who seems to know.
“No dust leaks out, no worms get in; it makes the process slow.”
From far above a winch comes down to soiled sweating men
Who take the weight and slip the straps beneath the coffin’s ends.
Then out they climb, the webbing strains, the windlass motor hums.
A moment stopped: “It’s stuck,” says one, then up the long box comes.
Beside its pit the coffin sits, still stained from years below.
It seems, at misty thickened dawn, to cast a ghastly glow.
No one speaks but all move up, each elbowing for view.
A small man with a piece of steel busts out the rusted screws.
The flashlights pan the bones and dust, the tie clasp and the threads.
Unseen, unheard, a wraith escapes, and screams above their heads.
Dennis Richard Murphy, 2004
Friday, September 14, 2007
Interview with authors Susan Smily and Honora Finkelstein
PDD: Tell us a bit about your books.
H&S: Right now we have two published cozy mysteries in our Ariel Quigley Series, The Chef Who Died Sautéing, and The Lawyer Who Died Trying, both out with Hilliard and Harris. And we have a total of 13 professions for which we have the skeletal outline for a story. Ariel Quigley is a psychic detective, who talks to ghosts, reads Tarot cards, and has precognitive dreams, all of which give her clues to solving the murders she encounters. But she has to solve the mystery through deductive reasoning, just as should be the case in any other good mystery. We’ve also written a thriller with a metaphysical twist that is with our agent, looking for a good home.
PDD: How did you come to write a book together? And how difficult (or easy) is it to co-author a book?
H&S: We met at a writers’ conference in upstate New York and later found out we’re cousins. And we’ve been in business together for the past 14 years in one capacity or another—doing a TV project on the road in a RV, running an antique store, and even being travel agents for about 15 minutes—we both love to travel. Then we bought a grand old house in a little Midwest town where we could run a metaphysical retreat and workshop center. And when Honora went back to college teaching for a few years, Susan assisted by building her websites. So we work really well together.
Because we’d sampled so many different professions and had met a lot of crazy characters as we traveled, we sat down one day and compiled a long list of people who would look ever so much better lying flat with their toes turned up and about six feet of dirt on top of them. Then Susan, who was once married to a chef, wrote a description of the restaurant where he had worked, and Honora had a dream about a Fat Man ghost who was a protective spirit, and she wrote that scene. After a few more discussions, we were on our way to outlining the first novel, and for that first one, we sat side by side at the computer and wrote it scene by scene using the outline we’d created. And it’s not hard to do that, because we tend to echo each other’s words a lot of the time anyway.
For the second novel and the thriller, and in the interest of best utilizing creative time, after we’d outlined the books together, Honora did the first draft and Susan did the second. And that seems to work pretty well, too.
PDD: How do you promote your books? What works best for you?
H&S: First, by putting on silly costumes so we get noticed, then going to conferences, doing speeches at Kiwanis clubs, doing book signings along with book talks at libraries and independent book stores, and just putting ourselves out in the public eye. An unknown writer makes fans one person at a time, so we try to get the names and emails of everybody we meet, and we put them in our database and send out a newsletter periodically. It was going out every couple of weeks until the end of June when Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer, though now she sends out her carepages.com news update just about weekly. And I’m sure once the dust settles and we’re in a routine with her treatment program, we’ll be back to sending out the mystery newsletter regularly, too.
PDD: What led you to write two cookbooks along with your mystery series? What's it like writing cookbooks along with mysteries? And HOW in the world did you come up with a recipe for Peanut Soup? I love the sound of it.
H&S: We didn’t know when we were writing The Chef Who Died Sautéing that it was going to be considered a “culinary mystery.” We were just writing what we thought was a good, convoluted tale worthy of Poe and Doyle. But it turned out many of our readers decided it was a culinary mystery—it does have 9 chefs in it, so maybe they’re right! And one of those chefs is Ariel’s friend Bernice Wise, who is a psychotherapist in the D.C. area. Anyway, as we started promoting ourselves at conferences and bookstores, we decided to wear chef hats and aprons. And as we were doing book signings around the country, people would come up and say, “Oh, is this a cookbook?” And we’d reply, “No, it’s a mystery. See, it says ‘Who Died’ in the title.” And they’d say, “Oh, too bad, if it had been a cookbook, I would have bought it.” So we got the idea for having our protagonist, Ariel, help the authors put together a cookbook for all the food that’s described in the novel. And Hilliard and Harris liked the idea and agreed to publish the cookbooks as companions to the novels. So we now have “Killer Cookbooks” to go with each novel, and as we’re writing, we don’t just have our characters go out to eat—they have to go out and eat something unusual so that we can put the recipe for it into the “Killer Cookbook” for that novel. And since Susan is more of a cook than is Honora, she generally compiles the first draft of the cookbook. This works well, too, because Honora is a really nitpicking copy editor, so she wants the last word on the final drafts of the cookbooks!
Peanut soup actually was a staple for early colonial cooking—it’s on the menu of a couple of restaurants in Alexandria, Virginia, and at the restaurant at Mount Vernon, which was George Washington’s home. So it was easy to find recipes for it. And having Bernice prepare it in the novel became a lead-in to our story of Bernice’s resident colonial ghost, Annie Grace.
PDD: Did winning a Lovey and being nominated for the Agatha give you a step up in your writing or a boulder to climb over in order to "top that?"
H&S: We were thrilled to be Lovey winners and Agatha nominees, and both of these honors increased our book sales, especially on Amazon. We also think that we have topped our first novel, both with the second in the series and with the thriller. But we haven’t had much chance to promote the second novel yet, and as we noted, the thriller is still out looking for a publishing home.
PDD: Susan is currently fighting a cancer battle and we are all cheering for her. How has that battle affected you as a writing team and promoting team?
H&S: We found out that Susan had cancer only two months ago, and we’ve had to scramble since then to get her tested and into a treatment program—that has had to take precedence over everything else in our lives. Because we live in a tiny little town on the Illinois-Indiana border, we had to do a bit of research so we could get a program where all the testing and treatment were in the same place, and Susan found one in Springfield, Illinois, so she’s already had two chemo treatments at this point. The tough part is that Springfield is 3.5 hours from where we live, so it’s a two-day adventure when we take her for treatment.
Also, some of the travel and other things we had planned had to be scrapped. We were scheduled to do a two-hour workshop called “A Short History of Sex” for the Romance Writers of America annual conference in Dallas in July, but we had to cancel that gig. However, we did manage to go to the “Killer Nashville” conference in August, and we’ll still be doing our “Metaphysics, Magic, and Things that Go Bump in Books” pre-conference workshop at the “Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave” in September. We had to cancel a trip to Spain we were going to make in November, but we’re now planning a trip to China for next June instead. So life goes on, now squeezed in between the three-week time blocks that are determined by when Susan has to go to Springfield for treatment.
PDD: Each of your books has a lovely sketch in the front pages and there are sketches of each of you on your website. Would you tell us a bit about the artist?
H&S: The artist for the Fat Man ghost cartoons and for the sketches of us on the web site is Susan’s mum, Elizabeth Smily, who is a well-known professional portrait artist in Canada. She was in art school at the Royal Academy when World War II broke out, so she became a jeep driver for the British Women’s Army Corp. We have a wonderful picture of her grinding the tappets on her jeep from that period. And while she was in the Army, her parents were notified that one of her paintings—a picture inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec of a dissolute chap sitting at a bar at the Folies Bergere, looking at can-can dancers in the mirror over the bar—was going to be hung on the line at the Royal Academy. (We also have the original of that painting hanging in our education center.) The Army got wind of the fact that a budding artist was one of their service women, so they went and took a look at this lovely young jeep driver, and they turned the picture of her working on her jeep into a recruiting poster. After the war, she finished art school and painted a lot of famous people in England and Europe before she married Sue’s dad and moved to Canada. And she continued to paint up until just this past year, when her arthritis made it difficult for her. So she’s gone into writing and has now published her memoirs, entitled Reminuisances. For more of her marvelous artwork, please go to http://www.elizabethsmily.com/, which is a virtual art gallery Susan put together for her.
PDD: Your website (http://www.arielquigleymysteries.com/) is fantastic. Do both of you garden or just one? And how do you find time with all your travels?
H&S: Both of us have gardened in the past, though when Honora went back to teaching, Susan took over the gardening at the center. She’s the one who designed the Spiritual Garden out of paving stones, with the Tree of Life, the I Ching, the Star of David, and the OM symbol. But nobody had any time for gardening this year—probably just as well, since Southern Illinois has been in severe drought and everything has dried up this summer.
PDD: Your books feature a touch of the metaphysical and you're looking for more ghost stories. Could you tell us a bit about your interest in ghosts and why you included this in your series?
H&S: Both of us have had experiences with ghosts, so we can attest to their reality. And both of us have had psychic experiences, so for us what is usually considered paranormal is really normal. Honora, for example, had her first out-of-body experience when she was four. So when people say there’s no such thing as ghosts or psychic abilities, we just have to take their opinions with a grain of salt—we know what we know, and we believe that “non-believers” simply haven’t had any personal experience that would turn them into “believers”! We actually think everybody has psychic ability and could get lots of psychic hits if they’d just open their minds to the possibilities. Anyway, we included the realm of ghosts and other paranormal experiences in our work because we sort of wanted to de-mystify them for our readers.
PDD: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your series?
H&S: We’re actually pretty funny people, and our books (even the thriller when you get past the grisly murders) have a lot of humor. And we’d love to hear from people who have ghost stories about things they’ve experienced. For those, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Ghost Stories” in the subject line.
Also, Susan got the idea at “Killer Nashville” to do a book on cancer, with stories from mystery writers and readers who have had it or been caregivers for family or friends, and to call the book “The Mysterious Disease.” So we invite any mystery writers or readers with stories to please get in touch with us through email@example.com, and put “Cancer Stories” in the subject line.