Friday, January 24, 2020

Sliding Doors

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

By Abir

I came to writing relatively late. Indeed, I guess it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I was a thirty-nine-year-old accountant, hurtling towards forty and I had the hope that maybe there might be more to life than accounting.

I’d always wanted to write books but never had the confidence. It’s true that on several occasions over the years I’d actually come up with a few ideas, sometimes even put pen to paper, but then, after about five thousand words or so, I’d make the mistake of reading what I’d written, think it was rubbish, lose all confidence and shove it in a drawer. 

Then I saw an interview with Lee Child where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought why don’t I give it a shot? And anyway, as mid-life crises went, it seemed a safer outlet than buying a motorbike.

I’d never read any of Lee Child’s books till then, but I went out that day and bought a copy of his first book, Killing Floor, and devoured it within forty-eight hours. I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper.

Nevertheless, I’d have probably given up after about ten thousand words if it weren’t for a piece of good fortune. I’d been doing some research online and came across details of a writing competition in a national newspaper, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The entry requirements were simple: the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two-page synopsis of the rest of the book. There was only one stipulation – that the entry contained some international element. I tidied up the first chapter, wrote the synopsis and sent them away. 

Having never submitted anything before, I didn’t expect to win, so it was a complete surprise when, a few months later, I was contacted by the organizer of the competition and told that my book was going to be published. The problem was at that point I didn’t have a book, just half a first draft of fifty thousand words that didn’t always fit together. Thankfully my editor and the whole team at the publishers took me under their wing and helped me turn those fifty thousand words into a fully-fledged novel. The rest, as they say, is history – or historical fiction at least.

If I hadn’t had that lucky break, I suppose the chances are I’d still be an accountant, which is a bit upsetting because I don’t think I was ever really cut out for it. I’d probably be a lot richer, but I’d be miserable too.

If I could have my choice of careers, though, I’d probably want to be an astronomer or a particle physicist. I’m fascinated by space and time and quantum theory (I watch podcast lectures on these subjects in my spare time – yes, I really am that sad), but the problem is I’m pretty crap at maths and both astronomy and particle physics is more about algebra than planets and cool lasers. (Yes, I know maths is pretty fundamental to accountancy too, but I never said I was a particularly good accountant.

Maybe it’s just as well I became a writer.

I wish I understood this

Thursday, January 23, 2020

On Second Thought, Let Me Change That...

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

From Jim

That was supposed to be my topic today. But since three cool things happened to the 7 Criminal Minds this week, I’ve decided to go rogue and write about something else.

First, huge congratulations to our own Catriona McPherson. Her Scot & Soda was named a finalist for the Lefty for Best Humorous Novel, and her Strangers at the Gate was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Second, our Abir Mukherjee’s Smoke and Ashes is a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Congratulations to both of you! You make us very proud.

Third, the other news this week involves me. And since it’s my turn, I’m jolly well going to crow about it. It’s not all that often that you have a book come out, after all. For me, it’s usually about once a year. In the case of my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone, it took about eighteen months. So its book birthday this past Tuesday is cause to celebrate. (My lovely wife organized this tableau for me.)

It’s September 1963. Ellie is in Florence to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. Just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, however, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has been fished out of the river, quite dead. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.

This book was different from my others in several ways. Location for one, and plot elements for another. I won’t go into those because I don’t want to provide any spoilers. The greatest difference, however, is that I wrote it without an outline. I’ve always plotted out my books before writing them, but this time I didn’t. And I paid the price. There was a lot of fixing on the back end instead of the front. The result was good, I hope, but it was difficult and stressful. I vowed never to “pants it” again.

The arduous process of revision came back to me when I was thinking about this post, and I realized it would be instructive to look at my earliest drafts of the book. I save my versions, numbered sequentially, every two days or so. It’s a good practice for avoiding lost data. With regular version-ups, I protect myself from losing any more than a day or two of work at most. And, if I change my mind about a passage I’ve deleted, I can go back and recover it. Or, if I want to write a blog post on my writing process, I can do so easily.

This is the opening of the book as I first wrote it two years ago.

Note the highlighted words in gray. That indicates that I’ve attached notes to these words. The first note, for Turn to Stone, merely states that this is Ellie Stone #7. I inserted this information for the benefit of the editor, who may or may not have been familiar with the other books in the series. An overabundance of caution. The second highlighted term—polizia municipale—was for me. I wrote this paragraph on an airplane and had no Internet access for research. I wanted to be sure that this was the appropriate police division to handle a drowning in Florence. Good thing I flagged this, as the municipal police in Italy was the wrong arm of the law. Had Bondinelli parked his car in the wrong place, the polizia municipale would have been the ticket. But in cases of murder or death, it’s the polizia di stato who’s on the case. Of course I changed this.

I quite liked the the idea of leading with the first nights, and I regretted having to delete it. From a rhetorical point of view, it was catchy. And a little sexy. But, having started without an outline, I ran into trouble immediately. As the next paragraph indicates, I had to go backward in time to tell how Ellie had come to be in Italy in the first place. It was awkward. And I didn’t want to lead with buzzing mosquitoes anyway. Somewhat off-putting. There was always time for that later. I also realized that August was not right for the story. Italians go on vacation in August. No one would schedule an academic symposium in August. So I postponed the action of the story to late September when school was back in session. Despite these changes, I managed to salvage much of this passage, but I put it later in the book.

And here is the opening as it appears in the final version of the book.

I decided to start with Ellie boarding the plane for Italy. This afforded me the opportunity to inject some period details—Pan Am, 707s, smoking on planes—and make clear that she was heading to Italy. No need to to jump backward and forward in time. Ellie’s characteristic preamble, the short bit that introduces the theme of the book, is a meditation on language and names. It replaced the “first three nights” paragraph. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’ve included these preambles starting with book 4, Heart of Stone, and they’ve become a staple for me. And, by the way, if the reader is paying attention, they usually provide a clue to the resolution of the mystery...

So for this book birthday week, I’ve enjoyed looking in the rearview mirror at the creative process of Turn to Stone. There were countless other revisions of the book, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the earliest version. It’s always good to take stock and consider where you went wrong and how things might be better handled next time. Still I fear—despite my resolutions to the contrary—that I might again work without a net and “pants it” on some future book. The results for Turn to Stone, after all, worked out well.

By the way, happy ninetieth birthday, Dad.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Writing crime: easy money the hard way

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

by Dietrich

When I started writing fiction, I wrote short stories and dabbled in different genres, and by the time I found a steady rhythm to my words, I was writing stories inhabited by marginal characters that often ended hip-deep in committing some crime or other. I think my lean toward dark humor had a lot to do with it too, something that I think goes hand in glove with good crime fiction. There’s nothing funny about crime or violence, but there is a certain levity that humor brings to the tension found in that kind of story. And I like writing my characters, some who are desperate, some living by their wits, some lacking wits altogether, but all of them just wanting to make easy money the hard way.

The first three novels were set in present time and close to home on the west coast, surroundings I’m familiar with. Then I tried a period piece because the timeframe suited the story I was working on. At first I wondered about all the research that would be needed to pull it off, writing about a time and place that I hadn’t experienced. But, once I got into it, I found that I really enjoyed doing the digging and sifting. After that novel, I let my settings land in whatever period in time that best suited the story, some in present time, some back in time.

Writing dialogue sure isn’t exclusive to crime fiction, but I enjoy letting the characters tell their story through their own words. The characters that live in my novels always seem to be working some kind of angle, and what they’re not saying often conveys more than the words that they are saying.

When I get a fresh idea for a story, I just start cranking out the pages, letting the first draft take its course. I don’t plan much. I just type away, trying to stay out of the way of the characters, letting them steer their own course and tell their story. 

And I don’t try to guess what readers will be buying. Sure, I’d love to nail a million-seller as much as the next writer, but I don’t believe I’ll get there by guessing what’s going to sell. I just try to stick to what works best for me.

Over the years I read a lot of fiction: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, Salinger, Thompson, Bukowski, Burroughs, and so on, and I guess the best of it kept that dream alive inside me, inspiring me long before I started writing. And I still read a lot and still draw inspiration by some of the greats writing today.

The second part of the question, about what I’d be if I hadn’t become an author … Well, I had a career in commercial art, and that came long before I finally started writing. Writing was that something that I just always wanted to do going back to when I was in my teens. Yeah, it took a long time before I started doing what I always wanted to do. But, once I finally did make the jump and got serious about it, I’ve never looked back, and I’ve been loving every minute of it. 

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.


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.

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