Friday, May 29, 2015

Pacing Suspense

by Jean Henry Mead

I once read an article by mystery novelist Phyllis Whitney concerning pacing and suspense. She said the best advice she received was from the editor of Weird Tales Magazine, a highly respected pulp magazine published before she began writing novels. 

The editor said that she shouldn't try to keep her stories at a constant high pitch, that readers grow as bored with continuous excitement as they do with nothing happening at all.

Pacing suspense is important because a reader needs time to relax between action scenes. Another important aspect of writing suspense novels, she said, is that your reader will find endless defeat and discouragement too unpleasant to read. Writers are, first and foremost, entertainers. And main characters’ lives should never be easy although small victories have to be paced strategically along the way to keep the plot interesting.

Much like mystery novelist Marlys Millhiser, Whitney started her novels with a setting. She said she wanted a place that gave her fresh and interesting material, even though it may be in her own backyard. In her first mystery novel, Red is for Murder, she went to Chicago’s loop to get behind-the-scenes background on the window decorating business. Because the book only sold 3,000 copies, she returned to writing for children, but years later, the book was reprinted in a number of paperback editions as The Red Carnelian.

Once she had her setting, Whitney searched for a protagonist driven to solve a life and death situation. The more serious and threatening the problem, the higher the reader’s interest. Whitney stressed that a writer needs to think about this powerful drive during the novel’s planning stages because it’s easier to build the plot around the problem in an action story than something much quieter. However, inner turmoil can be just as suspenseful as the threat of bodily harm if the writer remains aware of the character’s desperate need to reach a certain goal. Action doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. 

The protagonist doesn’t know from the beginning of the story how to solve his problem, but sooner or later, he decides something needs to be done. That’s when the story actually begins. The character may make the wrong decision but he needs to do something rather than just drift along through several chapters. 

Characters need purpose and a goal to reach by the end of the book. If your protagonist is unable to reach her goal or solve her problem, bring in another character who can help. This new character may have ulterior motives or a different goal, and therein lies suspense.

An eccentric character can also provide suspense by doing the unexpected, thus making the situation worse. Whitney advised against more than one strange character per novel because it suspends belief. But any character doing the unexpected can build suspense. If the reader knows what’s going to happen next, she soon becomes bored and may lay the book aside. So to prevent that from happening, surprise your reader with something unusual although logical. Whitney had one of her characters making her way down a long, dark, narrow passageway when she suddenly touches a human face.

That’s not only unexpected, it's suspenseful. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Guest Post Featuring Cindy Brown

Dead Darlings
By Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown
Writers know that sometimes we have to kill our darlings, to cut scenes we love that no longer fit into our books. But what do we do with those scenes? Someone asked that question at Malice Domestic during the humor panel where I met Jackie King (who so graciously asked me to post today). 
I like to resurrect those scenes. Sure, some of them stay in a file marked “Maybe later,” but too often later never comes and my poor dead darlings languish in the deep freeze. So every so often, I pull one out and let it run around a bit. I rewrote a bunch of them into monologues and invited a theater company to read them as part of my launch party for Macdeath. I put one on my blog. I plan to include some short funny bits in my email newsletter. And what the heck, I’m going to raise one from the dead right now.


My novel, Macdeath, a madcap mystery set in the off, off, off Broadway world of theater. The scene below didn’t really move the plot forward, but I think it’s a fun little bit that gives you an idea of the book’s world. To give you a frame of reference, the scene is written from the point of view of Ivy Meadows, my actress/part-time PI protagonist, and features Linda (the stage manager), Debbie (the costume designer), and Edward (the director).  I hope you enjoy my dead darling!

I strolled into rehearsal, twenty minutes early. I made a point of walking past Linda so she could see how wonderfully on-time I was. She looked at her watch, then tapped it, holding it to her ear.

“Damn,” she said. “Must need a new battery.”

I smiled at her, mostly to keep myself from sticking out my tongue, and started toward the dressing room.

“Since you’re here on time…” she said.

“Early,” I said. “I’m here early.”
“Since you’re here a few minutes early,” she conceded, “I’d like you to go upstairs and see Debbie. She has some wigs for you to try on.”

Debbie was our costume designer, a big woman with a large laugh and about a zillion costumes to get done in the next few days. I hadn’t heard her laughing lately.

I ran up the stairs and poked my head into the costume department. Neatly organized racks of clothes filled the room. Shelves lined the walls, crammed full of labeled cardboard boxes. I saw a box labeled “codpieces,” but I didn’t see Debbie.

A petite blonde woman sat at one of several sewing machines, piecing together a costume made of striped fake fur.

 “Did Debbie leave any wigs for me to try on?” I asked. “I’m Ivy. Third witch.”

 “Didn’t say anything to me, but...”

She waved toward a counter near the back of the room where several wigheads stared into the mirror with Styrofoam eyes. Fake hair peeked out from boxes under the counter.

I didn’t know what Debbie had in mind, but Linda had sent me to try on wigs, so I did.

            I had just yanked off a short blond one that made me look like the mother in the Brady Bunch, when I saw Debbie stomp into the room, Edward hard on her heels.

            “No, no, no! Must I explain the concept to you again?!”  As usual, Edward gestured wildly as he spoke. Instead of the usual carrot, though, he was flinging around a bit of brown and green cloth.

The blonde seamstress slipped out of the room. I slid back between a couple of racks of costumes from a production of Mame! Completely hidden by a wool coat and a red gown with a feather boa stitched around the neck, I could eavesdrop without being seen.

Debbie spoke through clenched teeth. “I heard you just fine, all five thousand times you’ve explained it to me. If you would just listen to me for…”

“Then where is the circus?!” Edward nearly foamed at the mouth. “Where are the tutus, the glitter, the gaudiness? Certainly not here!”

“The witches are not wearing any goddam tutus,” she said. “No way. How are they going to crawl in and out of the caldron in tutus?”

Edward ignored her, and waved the bit of cloth, which I was beginning to think was a leotard. “This just looks like a bad interpretive dance costume.”

He minced around, doing, yes, a bad interpretive dance. He pranced like a deer. “Now, we are the woodland creatures, blown out of our forest …” The deer twirled around, “And into…” the deer stopped and stared straight ahead. “Into traffic.”

Debbie crossed her arms. “Are you saying my costume looks like roadkill?”

Maybe it was a really good interpretive dance. I could see Edward as roadkill.

“If the shoe fits,” he said, dropping the leotard on the floor.

Picture from launch party for Macdeath
Ivy and Edward

Cindy Brown has been a theater geek since her first professional gig at age 14. Now a full-time writer, she’s the author of the Ivy Meadows theater mysteries. Macdeath, the first book in the series is “a gut-splitting mystery"(Mystery Scene Magazine). The second book in the series, The Sound of Murder, comes out this October

Cindy and her husband now live in Portland, Oregon, though she made her home in Phoenix, Arizona, for more than 25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thoughts from below the equator – an interview with Dorothy Johnston (part one)

by Bill Kirton

Dorothy Johnston is an award-winning Australian author. She’s written novels, short stories and a quartet of mysteries featuring Sandra Mahoney. It’s through these mysteries that I came to know her. They’re set in Canberra and, as well as being beautifully written examples of the genre, convey the subtle differences between life in the northern and southern hemispheres.  The questions she asked when she interviewed me  were so perceptive that I wanted to turn the tables and try to get some of her own inside story. Her replies were so rich and interesting that I didn’t want to lose anything of what she said so I’m posting them in two parts. Here’s part one.

From the point of view of a traditional fan of crimes/mysteries, it seems that the whole area of computer crime, identity theft, alibi establishing, the location of suspects/victims at specific times (through mobile phones or computer log-ins) has added a new dimension to the genre. Is that the way you see it? Does your own expertise in the field open up possibilities different from the conventional ones?

I’m no technical expert, but neither is my protagonist, Sandra Mahoney. Her partner, Ivan, knows a lot more about the IT world than she does, at least at the beginning. In the first book in my quartet, The Trojan Dog, Sandra falls into investigating an electronic crime, much as I fell into writing about them. She’s an everywoman, learning as she goes.

The mystery quartet – after The Trojan Dog comes The White Tower, then Eden, then The Fourth Season – is my way of writing about Canberra, where I lived for thirty years before moving back to Victoria, close to where I was born. Canberra, the most stratified and Gothic of Australian cities, had ambitions to become the IT capital of the country, an ambition which seems quaint now; but in the early 1990s, when I began my quartet, a lot of people were taking it seriously. The slipperiness, often the invisibility, of electronic crime still seems to fit well with the national capital – the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing – or pretending not to know – the government as the country's biggest spender, and therefore a most attractive target for thieves.

On another level, writing about electronic crime appealed to me imaginatively. Some years ago, I discovered a description by Umberto Eco of three types of labyrinth, and this description has stayed with me.

First, Eco says, there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre thanks to Ariadne's thread, slays the minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a minotaur, but you do not know what the minotaur will do. Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne's thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task. Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. This labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit.

Cyberspace, where crimes using computers are committed, is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the minotaur.

I find this space enormously appealing. Yet what also appeals to me is the traditional structure of a crime investigation, a fictional one, that is, the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that's created by putting one inside the other.

That’s a terrific analysis of how the genre works. I’ll no doubt be stealing it in the future. Let’s be more basic now, though. I knew, of course, that the seasons in the southern and northern hemispheres are reversed but I was somehow more aware of it when I read The White Tower. Is that the sort of experience you have when reading books written by ‘northern’ authors?

The quartet was always going to be ‘four seasons’ – one novel for each. The seasons are distinct in Canberra, for someone who was born and grew up on the coast. (The White Tower is Spring.) I like turning things upside down for northern hemisphere readers. In the same way, I like looking at snowbound French villages on television when the temperature outside my window is forty degrees.

You’ll find images of Aberdeen in January have a similar effect, only without the prettiness. Does the genre differ in Australia from crimes or mysteries written here up north? If so, can you tell me a bit about the nature of those differences?

I thought you might ask about this, and I really don’t have an answer. It’s a truism to say that Australia was a convict settlement, that Europeans’ sense of themselves in this country began with ritualised crime and punishment, compared with, for example, religious conviction in North America. It’s a truism that, in my view, has far-reaching consequences, but I don’t have the space to go into them here. Bill – you said you could write an essay in answer to each of my questions, and you’ve presented me with the same dilemma! Briefly, there’s a strong – and brutal – line of inheritance from convict days, and at the same time contemporary fiction that goes in multiple directions – from cosy to hard-boiled and everything in between. One general comment made by critics from time to time is that we favour private operators rather than police procedurals. Interestingly enough, one of my favourite writers, Barry Maitland, who writes police procedurals, has chosen to set his series in London rather than anywhere in Australia.

…and that’s the point at which we’ll pause to reflect on some stimulating thoughts about both the mystery genre and the cultural influences that I, for one, had never really considered. The fact that we share a language tends to lead us to suppose that the sharing extends to values. It probably does, but the historical element Dorothy introduces adds a fascinating new dimension.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Should Main Characters in Mysteries Have Children?

by June Shaw

I am debating that topic right now. I'm starting a new mystery series, and one of the things I'm really considering is whether to give my protagonist children. That is so cool--we authors make so many decisions about the people in our stories. It's really different from real life in that we can't choose many things that will go on with those around us. Like our grown children and growing grandchildren.

Gosh, I imagine concept is working my thoughts right now because of the series I am planning, but also because of the end of the school year. In the last couple of weeks I've been to a number of honors' ceremonies and graduations. I just heard from my daughter who lives in the next town that her oldest son may be doing an internship for his master's in Data Analytics in Colorado--and he's from down here in south Louisiana. I'm glad for him since he's pleased, but we'll all really miss him.

On another front, I also just did a first book signing with my two teen granddaughters who wanted to write a book with me. Since we all loved HUNGER GAMES, we wrote in that genre. We signed our new novel, the dystopian JUST ONE FRIEND and in one hour, sold out. Many people are waiting for copies, and those sweet young ladies have earned their first nice royalties. That'll really help the one about to start attending L.S.U.

A number of readers have said they prefer not to see children in mysteries since they often deter from the main problem.

I find it difficult not to have children of any age around me or the characters I create.

What about you?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Plant some flowers in your plot!

By Carola

Running short of time as always so I'm posting a link to a Spring blog I wrote that  talks about using flowers and other plants in your fiction.

May (hawthorn) blossom in my garden

Friday, May 15, 2015

Restarting a Stalled Plot

by Jean Henry Mead

Writers have all been there at one time or another. The story’s going along great when all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail, you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

It's time to unearth intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, Henderson says, “it’s just the stuff we really need to know about our characters. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.”

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?
A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.
Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.
A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.
Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.
A. So did I until I started resaerching his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in an accident?
A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.
Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?
A. Well, I guess I overcorrected when Sara distracted me.

Properly interviewing characters can bring out traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to all sorts of plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Malice Domestic 2015 Rocked!

by Jackie King

Malice Domestic, a yearly convention to celebrate the vast pleasure of reading Mystery Stories, was held May 1 through May 3, 2015, in Bethesda, Maryland. This was the 27th such celebration, and my first to attend. Unlike many writer gatherings, Malice Domestic is held primarily for readers, and is called a Reader-Fest. Nothing is as much fun as hanging out with Readers, since people who read are also Smart.
I made it!
All writers were first readers. Nearly all who follow this profession are not only smart, they are empathetic. The combination of both readers (at the convention, they proudly call themselves, “Fans,”) and writers, make the best audiences ever. These groups are attentive, receptive and enthusiastic. It was so easy to speak to them.
These writers finished Malice-Go-Round. It's
Like speed dating, but with Authors & Readers

“YOU COULD DIE LAUGHING,” was the panel I was fortunate enough to speak with. I read each author’s book, and each made me laugh. Here is the list:

L-R Cindy Brown, 
Kathryn Leigh Scott, Moderator—JINXED  (I especially recommend for film fans.) Standing in back
Left to Right:
Cindy Brown—MACDEATH  (If you love the theater, you’ll love this mystery!)
Nancy G. West—FIT TO BE DEAD  (If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, imagine it with a dead body thrown in. Fun mystery set in a gym.)
Shelley Costa—BASIL INSTINCT  (A riotously funny Italian family ever; plus recipes.)
Tim Hall—DEAD STOCK  (If you love vintage clothing, this is your cup of tea.)
Jackie King—THE INCONVENIENT CORPSE  (No resources, no job skills and a stranger’s body in Grace’s bed. A B&B mystery.)

The Audience Gathers

Authors dead from laughing?
Am I next?
Even so, I can't stop laughing!

Other photos from my trip to Malice Domestic 27:
Sara Paretsky--Malice Lifetime Achievement Award
L-Caroline Todd half of the Charles Todd writing team who was Guest of Honor
R-The wonderful Sara Paretsky

At the Agatha Awards Banquet:
Judy Rosser-My fabulous Beta Reader, Moi, and LuLu Harrington, writer
Best Children/Young Adult Novel
The Code Buster's Case #4 by Penny Warner
Best Short Story
The Odds Are Against Us,  by Art Taylor Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Best Nonfiction
Writes of Passage-Adventures on the Writer's Journey, by Hank Phillippi Ryan, editor
Best First Novel
Well Read, Then Dead by Terrie Farley Moran
Best Historical Novel
Queen of Hearts, by Rhys Bowen
Best Contemporary Novel
Truth Be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Next year this Convention will be held April 29 through May 1, 2016. Attend if you possibly can.

My May 28th post, will feature one of the delightful writers from the humor panel, Cindy Brown, author of MACDEATH.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A far from ordinary resolution

by Bill Kirton
Brace yourselves because, although I’m about to ask you to read just one sentence, it contains 157 words but only 3 commas and 2 full stops, one of which is there to indicate an abbreviation. So, with names, dates and other things changed to avoid being prosecuted by members of the profession of those who wrote it, here goes:

THAT, the acquisition by the Company of the remaining 73 per cent. of the issued share capital of Acme Trading (Soc) Ltd ("Acme") resulting in Acme becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the Company (the "Acquisition") pursuant to the terms of (1) the share purchase agreement dated 23 June 2013 and made between the Company and the shareholders of Acme and (2) a supplemental deed dated 15 April 2014 and made between the Company and the shareholders of Acme the principal terms of which are contained in the admission document dated 15 April 2014 be and is hereby approved and that the directors of the Company be and are authorised to take all steps necessary to effect the Acquisition with such minor modifications, variations, amendments or revisions and to do or procure to be done such other things in connection with the Acquisition as they consider to be in the best interests of the Company.

Apparently, this is (verbatim except for the changes I mentioned), an ‘Ordinary Resolution’. It’s from a company to its shareholders and, obviously enough, it was written by someone legal (who charges hundreds of pounds an hour for writing such prose), and is intended to put up barriers which make sure that, whatever happens, no-one will be able to sue anyone about any aspect of it. To be serious for a split second, it shows the extraordinary protective power of words.

But enough of seriousness, its lesson is clear. The reason so many of us are not getting the rewards we deserve from our writing is because we’re not ordinary enough. We care about our readers, want them to understand what we write, and we use literary and linguistic techniques to achieve those aims. We respect punctuation, syntax, semantics; we value pace, rhythm, imagery; we seek stylistic coherence. But these are self-indulgent fripperies, a waste of time and energy. To be extraordinary, we must first be ordinary. So banish meaning, structure, literary pretensions and just herd your words into a tumbling, breathless succession of clauses which move you so far from your starting point that you can lead your reader down through circles of incomprehension to abject surrender and a catatonic state in which writing a cheque to make you stop is a blessed relief.

Be ordinary.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Heirs of the Body

by Carola

The 21st mystery in my Daisy Dalrymple series is coming out in trade paperback from Minotaur on May12th.
Set in England in 1927, it's the story of the hunt for the legitimate heir to Daisy's cousin Edgar, the present Lord Dalrymple. Claimants to the viscountcy turn up from all corners of the Empire. When his lordship invites four of them--as well as Daisy and her family--to stay at his country estate to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, mayhem ensues.

Reviews of the hardcover edition:

"Dunn’s forebears are writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. They set the standard for classic cozy puzzles, and Heirs of the Body’s unfussy prose and straightforward plot lend themselves well to this venerable tradition."
Adam Woog, The Seattle Times.

"...lively and engaging throughout the traditional whodunit series. As Daisy's aristocratic family become embroiled in another cozy mystery, Dunn offers a strong sense of place, tight and suspenseful plotting and well-defined motives--all serving to enrich the entertaining puzzle at the heart of the story." --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Order from:
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Mysterious Galaxy
Mystery Ink

Friday, May 1, 2015

A History of Poisons

by Jean Henry Mead

The discovery of poisons occurred when prehistoric tribes foraged for food; an often deadly experience, or what would later be known as Russian roulette. Primitive poison experts were people to be reckoned with, and they either served as tribal sorcerers or were burned at the stake, depending on whom they practiced.

Our first written accounts of poisonings are from the Roman era over 2,000 years ago, although the Chinese, Egyptians, Sumerians and East Indians had practiced the art of poisoning for centuries. Cleopatra allegedly used her slaves and prisoners as guinea pigs while searching for the perfect suicidal poison. She tried belladonna and found that it killed quickly but was too painful for her own personal demise. She also tried an early form of strychnine but it caused facial distortions at death, so she chose instead the bite of an asp, a small African cobra, which produced a quick and painless death.

Those in some cultures were so afraid of being poisoned that they consumed gradual amounts of various poisons on a regular basis to build up their immunity to them. Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book, Strong Poisons, had her villain doing just that, as did Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Food tasters were employed by most royals. If they survived, after sampling each dish, the king would consent to eat his meal. The job must have paid well, or a steady stream of prisoners were employed against their will.

The use of poison-tipped arrows during the Renaissance period paved the way for modern pharmacology. Drugs such as atropine, digitalis and ouabain evolved from plant concoctions used for killing both people and animals. And we now know that thousands of people are killed each year with pharmaceutical prescriptions.

The Roman Borgia family of the fifteen century was a dynasty of poisoners, according to Serita Deborah Stevens in her book, Deadly Doses. If Casare Borgia were offended by something someone said, the unsuspecting person was invited to attend a party and would leave seriously ill or in the back of a mortician’s wagon. Borgia's poison of choice was arsenic, the favorite of assassins of that era.

Bernard Serturner isolated morphine from opium in 1805, but the formal study of poisons began with Claude Bernard, a physiologist, who researched the effects of curare, a South American poison the Indians used to tip their arrows. Chemical analysis could detect most mineral compounds by 1830, although not organic poisons. By 1851, a Belgian chemist discovered the technique of extracting alkaloid poisons while investigating a homicide caused by nicotine, a very deadly poison. Jean Servais Stas was the first to isolate nicotine from postmortem tissue.

The use of poison as a means of murder declined when modern methods of detection were perfected and physicians began saving many of its victims.