Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Why Write Mysteries?

Why write mysteries?

Terry Shames here, answering our burning question of the week: What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?
I’d love to say I had a burning desire to write mysteries for some exalted reason having to do with making order out of a chaotic universe, or a desire to see justice done, or the delight in writing a puzzle, but the truth is I intended to write mainstream novels. This was a long time ago, and I had heard it was easier to get mysteries published, so I decided that’s what I’d do. When I had one mystery book published I could then write my brilliant mainstream novel.

Before I could even get started, though, I had a hot idea for a sci-fi novel. This was the first time I found out that an idea might be “fun” and “interesting” but that without a sense of what I wanted to convey to readers, what I would come up with would be a mess. I can’t even remember why, but in the middle of writing it I decided what I really wanted to do was write a screenplay. I went to some screenwriting workshops, had a great time, and finished the screenplay. I sent it off to a screenwriting contest, which I didn’t win. And proceeded to let it  die a natural death. Instead, I went back and finished the novel. Then I sent off queries to a couple of publishers, who politely rejected it. And I never tried to get it published again.

Keep in mind, I still thought I really wanted to write a “real” novel. Not one of those genre things. So in order to hone my writing chops I decided to get a master’s degree in creative writing. Again, great fun. During the couple of years it took me to get the degree, I started a mystery novel. I liked it, thought it was pretty good, and managed to get an agent with it. After the novel didn’t sell, I decided to write another mystery—still stubbornly thinking it would be my gateway to writing a real novel.

The only thing I can say is that apparently I’m a really slow learner. I wrote six mystery novels and was unable to sell any of them. But somewhere along the line I began to realize a couple of things: First, that mystery novels are “real” novels. And second, that writing a good one wasn’t easy. Writing those six novels taught me to write. They taught me about plot and character, about setting and voice, and tone, and pace. But the most important thing I learned was that at the heart of every great novel there is a mystery. Without a mystery, even the deepest novel would be nothing more than a recounting of a series of events, or a character study, or travelogue.

When I settled in to write what I determined was finally going to be a successful mystery novel, I went back to a setting I knew and that I had a deep understanding of, small-town Texas. I chose characters drawn from people I knew intimately. I chose stories that often had their antecedents in real life and that I felt had a resonance in issues of the heart or in social justice. Somehow along the line I had learned about pacing and tone and that elusive element, voice.

One of the most satisfying moments of my writing life came when one of my first reviews said, “The poetic, literary quality of the writing draws you in…” I realized then that quite by accident I had found my literary course— “mainstream” mystery novels. Oddly, when my first book came out, at the bookstore book launch, a member of the audience asked me, “Do you write mysteries because you don’t think you’re good enough to write mainstream novels?” I had my answer ready. “I write them because they are a challenge. After all, at the heart of every literary novel is a mystery.” He replied, “Good answer.”

In answer to the second part of the question, I have had other jobs, like everyone else needing to make a living while I became a rich and famous author, but no matter what else I was doing, I always wrote—usually during lunch, or at night after work. I would often got to my car if it was parked nearby and write while I ate lunch. Or I’d find a quiet spot in the building to do it. But there was never any question that writing was what really drove me…while I worked as: a babysitter, secretary, a maid, a waitress, switchboard operator, a computer programmer/analyst, and a real estate agent.

Being a writer is a calling. It isn’t a job, it’s something that settles in and won’t let go. I maybe never be rich or famous, but I am doing what I want to do in life.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Why Crime Fiction? by Brenda Chapman

What made you decide to write crime & mystery fiction? And if you hadn’t been an author, what would you have been doing?

The simple answer is that I’m writing what I love to read. The first book series that I devoured as a kid were Enid Blytons The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I wanted nothing more than to be a member in a clubhouse that needed a secret password to enter with our time spent solving mysteries during our ‘hols in exotic locations with a  parrot named Kiki and a case of ginger beer. (Those who've read the books will understand.)

I went on to study English literature in university and remember rewarding myself with a good mystery after completing assignments. The fact I wanted to read a novel for fun after reading literature all day means I really, really like mysteries.

The first time I decided to try my hand at writing a book, I naturally gravitated toward the mystery genre. I was teaching at the time and helping a girl with her reading. She was reading aloud to me from a mystery she'd brought, and I remember thinking that I could write something better. Around the same time, I was shopping for books for my daughters who were in grade school, and lamenting that I couldn't find some straight-up good mysteries for their age groups. So my first attempt at writing a novel was Running Scared, a middle grade mystery. This led to my first series of four novels.

I also wrote some adult mystery short stories around this time and eventually switched to writing only for the adult market. All of the books I've written have been mysteries with the exception of one coming of age young adult book, which still contains mystery elements. I set out to write a non-murder mystery once, but a dead body showed up in the second chapter and that was that.

As for what I would do if I hadn't become an author, it seems that I've had many careers. I was a special education teacher for about fifteen years. Then I worked in the federal government in a number of positions at a few different departments, but mainly in communications. It has only been the past four years that I've written full-time. Looking back, however, is there a career I wish I'd had?

Writing workshop with some kids at a public library so still getting in some teaching:-) 

I've always been quite taken with radio and would have liked to have an on-air program - but this probably pays less than writing books! A career in journalism would also have been good and I dabbled with the idea at one point, even going so far as to be accepted into a journalism course before deciding on a more general arts degree.

A guest on 1310 News Radio - living out the dream!

All in all, I've had an interesting and varied working life with enough experiences to bring to my writing. I like to take the view that I'm meant where I'm meant to be in life and don't regret any of the choices that have taken me here.

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, January 17, 2020

House of Plots

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

by Paul D. Marks

Pease, porridge, plot. Pease, porridge, theme. Pease and porridge in the plot, nine days old. Some like it plot, Some like it theme. Some like it character right on the beam. Okay, I’m a little off the beam here…. But down to business:

Putting the cart before the horse, the bottom line is that everything needs to work together symbiotically, plot, theme, dialogue, pace, character and all the other things that I’m forgetting to mention here. It’s like a house, you can have a foundation without the structure on top, but it wouldn’t be much fun living there. And you can have the structure, minus the foundation. But you might wake up one day with everything having fallen all around you. You need it all. And one doesn’t work without the other. But back to writing, and since we’re writing mysteries/thrillers here, there’s two main elements, character and plot.

You need to have an exciting plot that moves forward, has some twists, turns and surprises. But you also need good and interesting characters or no one will care what happens to them. Theme tends to spring from these things as you write, at least it does for me. I don’t generally set out to write some theme, but because I’m me I have certain things that resonate with me and they tend to come out in my characters and writing. These include outcasts, people who are damaged, often dealing with or “recovering” from some physical or psychic wound. Others are dinosaurs (people who time has passed by one way or another), fish out of water, etc.

Things like dialogue, description, the business characters do while they’re talking, etc., are like the accoutrements in your house: wooden floors, paintings on the wall, sculptures and landscaping. They’re nice, but they’re on the surface. And, while they’re important, they won’t really matter if you don’t have a good foundation of character.

I once had a producer talk to me about the story vs. the plot. We were talking about a script and she kept saying “that’s the plot, but what’s the story?” I didn’t quite get what she was talking about. Aren’t plot and story the same thing? But then I finally got it: Plot is the chronological events that form the screenplay. Story is the underlying meaning, the human element—maybe what we’d call the B Story. In essence, story is what happens, to paraphrase John Lennon, while you're busy making other plans.

To use an example we all know, Casablanca: The plot of Casablanca is—Rick helps his ex-girlfriend and her husband get away from the Nazis. The Story is—a man struggles with his own selfish desires over the greater good of mankind; he ultimately becomes a better human being.  And this can be applied to prose stories as well.

Sometimes I get an idea for a character and have to come up with a story to build around that character. Other times I have an idea for a plot or situation or just a snapshot of a scene that intrigues me and things build out from there.

But the thing I like best are the characters, who they are and how they interact with each other. Their struggles with others and with themselves. What their motivations are. What they want and what they’ll do to get it. Of course, you don’t want to hit the nail too on the head with any of this, but it does come out in the wash, so to speak.

I also like flawed characters, like Duke Rogers, the P.I. in White Heat. Or his partner Jack, who is very unPC. He’s a tough character. But I like to say that Jack might say the wrong things but he pretty much does the right thing. And people of all political persuasions seem to like him. And Duke is battered from growing up with an abusive father and that affects the actions he takes.

Ray Hood in Dead Man’s Curve (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is a man who’s lost his focus, his dreams and his purpose, and is desperately trying to get them back. The question is, how far will he go to get all of that back? When I submitted that story to the anthology editors I was worried they might cut out certain things that were more character-related than plot or moving the plot forward bits. They didn’t. Which made me very happy but also I think adds to the texture of the story and is really the most interesting part for me.

Winger, the Weegee-like photog in Poison Heart (from the Deadly Ink anthology), is so desperate for recognition that he finds pleasure in doing photo recreations of grisly murder scenes...until it all gets out of hand and becomes too real.

Darrell Wood in Howling at the Moon (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014,) is jaded by war and life in general. He’s lost touch with his roots, causing him to question his priorities. He also shares a collective memory with his native American ancestors and that shapes his actions in the story.

In Windward (Best American Mysteries of 2018 anthology and winner of the Macavity Award for Best Short Story), P.I. Jack Lassen has retreated from the world to some extent and into in his bunker. He does come out to do his job, but he’s given up doing some of the things he loved, like surfing. And, though he takes pride in doing his job and doing it well and by the rules, maybe breaking some of those rules can get back some of his mojo back.

In my novella Vortex, Zach Tanner is physically wounded by war and mentally changed by it. This sends him on a collision course with the past and decisions he made that he deeply regrets now. That affects how he moves forward.

In my upcoming mystery-thriller The Blues Don’t Care (Down & Out, June 2020), Bobby Saxon has a lot to overcome. Not only is he the only white musician in an all-black swing band during World War II, he also has to deal with a society that’s not ready to accept him…in more ways than one. More to come on this.

All of these characters have to overcome their issues to survive and come out on the other side...if they can.

Another is the theme I’m drawn to of memory and the past and how those things affect the characters in the present.

Howard Hamm in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series that’s been appearing Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (the latest of which is Fade-Out on Bunker Hill, from the March/April, 2019 EQMM) is a very modern man, but his best friend, Kevin, who’s murdered in the first story, is immersed in the past and lived in one of the old Victorian mansions that had been moved from the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles to another neighborhood when Bunker Hill was being redeveloped. After Kevin’s murder, Howard begins to see the past and Kevin’s obsession with old-timey things in a different light. And many of the mysteries revolve around conflicts that start in the past and find a way into the present.

Bringing it back ‘round to the beginning, all of the elements really need to work together. I might have a preference for playing up character over plot or theme/action/description/dialogue, but you still need all the elements for a story to stand up on its own. And if you overlook any one element the story will not have the connection you want it to have with your readers.


And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release. (See book cover above.)


On a different level, I hope you’ll check out my recent post at SleuthSayers: More Stars Than There Are In Heaven: My interview with Steven Bingen, one of the authors of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. Today at SleuthSayers.

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Done

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

By Catriona

What a great question. (Do the readers of this blog know that behind the scenes we Minds take turns to come up with a month's questions at a time?) Well done to whoever dreamed up this one.

For me, it's definitely not "theme". I know that for sure. I don't think I need to know if there's a theme or not, or what it might be. Sometimes I stumble over it in the course of writing but most often I find out what I've been exploring by reading the reviews. When a critic I admire states with great confidence "This is a novel about the corrosive nature of secrets", I'm not going to argue.

And I know it's not "plot" that drives me. But unlike "theme" I also know that I need to deliver a plot to the reader - one that I'm in charge of; one that works. So when I'm writing a first draft, I find myself scribbling notes like "What's going to happen?" and sometimes even "Blah blah blah yeah but what's going to happen?"

I just made myself laugh out loud because I looked at the notebook open on my desk and saw this: 

(The rest of the notes on this page - Anchorage guy / Bran's slips resolved / Diego! Tin ships. Cropper - are to help me believe I won't forget what clues I'm sowing before I get around to harvesting them later on. Safe to say, I'm a bit less of a planner than Cathy.)

I did wonder if "character" is the most important element in my writing. But that doesn't capture how I feel about it. To make that claim would seem like saying my hobby is respiration. What I mean is that character is so absolutely elemental, so taken for granted, that I can't imagine what a book would feel like if characters were (somehow) kicked down the ladder a bit so something else could take over. 

Wait though: I know what happens to a film franchise when character goes from everything to basically nothing. Consider Die Hard (1988). Everyone in that film had a believable character, from John and Gruber, through Argyle the driver and Sgt Powell, all the way to the most minor parts like the slimy reporter and the coked-up executive. Now consider A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). There's John and one bad guy eats a lot of carrots. That's it.  

"Setting" might be the answer I'd go for if this was the short round. In the Dandy Giver series, the setting comes first. I work out where in Scotland I'm going to send her and then what institution or other milieu within that setting she's going to have to grapple with. In the standalones, which are more psychological, it's still very important to me to have a solid sense of where exactly the story takes place and how the setting works: what do the people do for fun in the evening; how many of the neighbours get their shopping delivered; are there buses?; what's the weather like?. 

There are different treats and challenges depending on whether the protagonist belongs in this setting - I love to write about someone's connection to a landscape and society - or has arrived here like a fish out of water to find out about it along with the reader. Some of the most fun I have with my current work is to conjure California in the eyes of a Scottish immigrant so that both US and UK readers will find things to recognise and (I hope) laugh about.

Aha! I've just thought of my final answer. The most important element to me in writing is . . . "voice". That's the thing that makes my writing mine, the thing I get most fierce about when the copy-editors come in. I don't know if it's of tremendous importance to all readers. Maybe they put up with my annoying fictional voice in some book or other to get to the plot, or immerse themselves in the setting, or reacquaint themselves with a character.

I do know it matters to some. People who've met me say they can hear me speak when they read my books and they're usually framing that as a positive thing. I've never heard someone say they can't come to my panel because they'll never get my voice out of their head and it'll ruin their reading. 

Yep, voice it is. 

What an informative blog this has been to write - thank you! Cx

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Elemental balance by Cathy Ace

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

This is one of those questions I always find it difficult to answer…because I could go on, and on, and on about it! I’m deep into a WIP at the moment (a new Cait Morgan Mystery); for those of you who are regulars here, you’ll know I am a detailed outliner, so – before I sat down to hit the keyboard to create the first draft – I had already worked on this title for some time. So, I suppose I’m as well placed as I’ll ever be to give a succinct response.

But I still can't because...

I always have/need a theme.

I always have/need a specific and general location.

I always have/need a thorough understanding of not just the physical reality, but also the psychological profile, personal and family histories of all my characters, as well as a comprehensive understanding of how all my characters interrelate.

I always have/need a precisely timed and planned story, with all the little plot points worked out to the minute.

I always have/need a detailed chapter by chapter outline.

Each element is critical. Each carries equal weight. Each has to be right. They all have to fit together to form a book with the right DNA.

The plot couldn’t work anywhere but the place I have set it. 

The story wouldn’t exist without the characters involved. 

The thematic framework is both created by and affects (and effects) the story and the nature of the setting.

This book? It all began with…Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson, Captain Morgan (the person, not the rum), pirates, an enigmatic skull carved from rock crystal, Jamaica, Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye, and a vision of an eccentric Englishman who likes to sing God Save the Queen from the top of a tower at sunset and sunrise every day. Is that a theme? An idea for a plot? Just a handful of characters? Too much gin whilst on a Caribbean cruise? I honestly cannot say. 

What I can say for sure is that the ninth Cait Morgan Mystery – THE CORPSE WITH THE CRYSTAL SKULL – will be published later this year. I dare say you’ll hear a lot more about it in the months between now and then, because I am hoping it will appeal to all those who have read at least some/one of the first eight books. I am thoroughly enjoying spending time with Cait and Bud again – and hope you do the same. Yes, I know this post has morphed into a bit of Blatant Self Promotion, but I am the only person who can do that, and I feel I have to speak up 😊

If you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll be the first to see the cover, when it’s revealed: click here to get to my website where you can find out about my work, and sign up for my newsletters.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Most Important Thing...

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

-from Frank
It's difficult to say what is most important. For one thing, different elements appeal to different people. For another, plot, character, theme, language, tone, setting...all of these are like ingredients in a cake. People don't look at a cake and say, "Is flour the most important thing?" They ask if it is fluffy or delicious (unless they're bakers, I suppose). It takes all of the ingredients working in tandem to create the finished product, and if one is missing or neglected, the 'taste' is off, right?

[After all of that metaphor work, I have a confession to make -- I don't like cake. I'm a pie guy].

That said, if you put a gun to my head, I would choose character. I think without character, you have nothing. Well, not nothing. You've got something, but it is isn't worth nearly as much, and it probably falls flat.

[That doesn't mean something can't be successful without it. I mean, I thought the lead professor from the plot-heavy novel The Da Vinci Code was about as cardboard as they come, but people bought the hell out of that book.]

In my own work, I almost always start with the character. Who is he? What does she do? What happens to him? How does she handle it? Everything else usually seems to evolve from there. The answer to these questions gives me the story which leads to the plot, and somewhere along the line, I discover the theme (or more aptly put, it discovers me).

Characters are what people remember. Right now, I'm not necessarily thinking of what happened to Ellie Stone in Los Angeles in Jim's novel, Cast the First Stone. I'm remembering Ellie herself, at least at first. Who she is, and why I like her. Ellie is why I'll go back and read the rest of the books. I think this is true with many readers. Everything matters, but character matters most. I mean this in an artistic sense, but I think it is often true in a commercial sense as well.

Available for Pre-Order!
In the rare instance when the character doesn't come first for me, it can be a struggle. I had what I believe was a great idea for a story when I first conceived of my newest novel, In The Cut  (Down and Out Books, available Jan 27! Get it for 40% off while on pre-order!).

I labored over the intracacies of the plot in order to make every turn and twist work within the context of the story and all its characters, but I was always missing one thing -- I didn't know who Boone, the main character, truly was. He performed admirably in service to the plot, and I finished a couple of drafts with him playing that role. As I prepared to send the book to the publisher, though, I found myself strangely hesitant.

I loved this idea when I had it. I loved the idea as I crafted what I knew was a good story. There were at least two twists most people wouldn't see coming, and I knew I'd been fair with those twists, too. So why didn't I feel satisfied?

It was my wife Kristi that pointed out the problem to me in more specific detail. With incisive criticism, she pointed to the flaws in Boone's motivation, his thought process, and perhaps most importantly, in my belief of who he was. She was pretty sure I had pegged him wrong.

Uh-oh. She was right. I didn't have a handle on the most important thing - character. And the main character, at that. The supporting class felt solid, but not Boone.

So I did a deep dive. Why did I feel this way about him? Who was Boone? How did he feel about everything and everyone inside that novel? Why did he feel that way? Why did he make the choices he made?

All of these are questions that get answered up front most of the time, at least for me. So it was an odd place to be, not having concrete answers for a protagonist while sitting on a complete novel, story-wise.

I thought about it a lot (no sauna at the gym, Abir, but thanks to Kristi's insistence, we've got a hot tub at the house). I asked Kristi what she thought, since she was instrumental in pointing out that I had a problem. She had some great insight into what should be foremost on Boone's mind, and why. I also consulted one of my writer friends, Colin Conway, and got an additional perspective. Then, between conversations with both of them and some time with a pen, a yellow note pad, and my own mind, I found Boone. Who he was slowly became revealed to me.

My attitude about In the Cut changed immediately, once I knew who Boone was. The revisions to accomodate his true self were fun, easy, and fast...because they felt right. Who he was didn't change the plot, it only changed how he responded to things -- what he thought, felt, and how he did things. In a couple places, it changed what he did, but the impact on the plot itself was fairly minimal. The change to how Boone was portrayed was considerable.

When I sent the book to the publisher, I did so with some measure of pride and confidence.

I think if you'd asked me the question a year ago or ten years ago, my answer would still have been that character is the most important thing. But writing In the Cut reaffirmed my belief.

For me, character is the most important element, and always will be.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Character Made Me Do It

Q: When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

-from Susan

For me, definitely character. I think the plot is defined by the main characters’ attitudes, biases, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. The protagonist and the villain, in particular, drive the plot forward by how they view and act on the crime. I write mysteries so it’s the protagonist who will be introduced first. Who is she? Why does she think she has a role in solving this crime? Is she going to tackle it directly with bravery or at least bravado? Is she going to sidle up to the problem quietly and diffidently? Can she handle the danger? If not, how will she find allies and what will they do? All of that and more dictate the shape and momentum of the plot. 

There are writers who rely on complex plots that carry all the characters along as if in a fast-moving stream. The plot acts on them. Works for some, but I couldn’t do it. 

My themes seem to come out of the story gradually. In one series, I realized I was returning to the same idea, one that bothers me in real life: The effects that ridiculous amounts of money, illegal acts that require that money be laundered, and the commodification of art have had on the art world. I don’t like it and I find I can use my Dani O’Rourke novels to show a few of the ways it has perverted the art market, hurt artists, and invited in crime. 

I expect that my novels don’t always move as fast as some readers would like. I have chosen to let my characters come at their amateur sleuthing at their own pace and in their own ways. They do get to the end having brought justice to killers and crooks, though, and that satisfies me.