Friday, November 29, 2013

A Man Called Frankenstein

by Gary
Frankenstein’s monster, or most often just Frankenstein, is the classic character I’d adapt, retcon as it were in a new way.  This constructed man continues to be revived and redone even today.  For DC Comics there was the recent Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., where Victor Frankenstein’s creation battles supernatural and other dimensional threats to our very existence.  In the upcoming I, Frankenstein movie, ol’ Frankie has taken the name Adam Frankenstein, is a wise due who has lived over 200 years, and becomes involved between two warring groups of supernatural beings in an ancient city.
Lynd Ward woodcut of the Monster
and his Creator.

My take on Frankenstein is simple but fun I hope, I’d make him a cowboy in the Wild West of the 1880s.  At six foot five and 250 pounds or so, he’d be a big cowboy who would need a sturdy horse, but so be it.  I would keep a lot of his past, but would make it murky about him killing his creator’s bride as he had vowed and did in the novel.  Though it was payback for the Doc killing the monster’s bride who he was putting together.  In this case, Frankenstein would have stalked Elizabeth Lavenza but at the last moment, he couldn’t kill her though he frightens her to death.  He eventually does go out on the ice in the North Pole as in the book, but is frozen, suspended animation like Captain America.
Having floated in a frozen piece of broken off glacier for years, he winds up on our eastern shoes, the ice finally melting away.  Given his superhuman recuperative powers, Frankenstein revives and seeks to quell the guilt he feels for what’[s happened in the Old World.  As demonstrated in the novel, he has a facility for languages and winds up living for awhile with a Mohawk tribe, learning their language and their ways.  Indeed he fights with them against white raiding parties and earns a reputation as a fierce warrior.  He fathers a couple of kids and moves on. 
He then works as a laborer on a cargo freighter and finds himself in the port town called Bristol, Rhode Island.  A town where it turns out (and this is based on actual events as chronicled in the documentary Traces of the Trade) is the center of the slave trade in the United States.  As Frankenstein has a keen dislike of anyone being denied their freedom, he gets involved in a slave revolt and helps several slaves, escape.  With a sizeable bounty on his head, he journeys further west, at various times making his living as a bounty hunter – what with his superior eyesight, reflexes and sense of smell, he is a hell of a tracker. 
It is in this part of his life that he meets and falls in love with the mixed race beauty Zarya Vordeneux, who is a free black in the odd way race and class is doled out oin pre-Civil War New Orleans.  Suffice it to say this voodoo priestess weaves a spell on him and others and things get hairy.
And that just the opening chapters before we get to the Wild West part of his life...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?

By Vicki Delany

I’m going to answer last week’s question rather than this weeks.  Why? Because I can.

Write what you know.

Okay, this is what I knew at the time I began writing crime fiction.

If John is dead
John was stabbed
IF Mary is holding a knife
                                    THEN Mary killed John
                        Else someone else stabbed John
            JOHN died by natural causes
John is alive

Exciting, eh. What I knew was several different computer languages and how to tell a computer what I wanted it to do.  I knew how to get to downtown Toronto from the outlying areas on the GO train.

But I didn't want to write books about computer programmers or about people who work in downtown Toronto. (Although a book about a computer programmer working at Toronto city hall these days might be might appealing. Would it be a comedy or a tragedy?) 

How many popular thriller or mystery books do you know starring an accountant, a stay-at-home mother with two toddlers, an elementary school teacher?  (Other than cozies, which do use the advice Write What You Know effectively e.g. Crafting or shop-owner mysteries, and even they are usually set in some idyllic town bearing no resemblance to where real people live). Not many.  

Because most of us, including me, might lead happy, satisfying lives full of love and joy, but that is not the stuff of which good crime novels are made.

Write what you WANT to know. Want to write about cops? Learn about the job of a police officer? Want to write a historical novel? Use research and imagination.  Want to write about pirates on the high seas? You can either cruise the seas hoping to be attacked by pirates, or read up on it.

After all, if you write what you know, essentially you’re writing about YOU. And I don’t think I’m a particularly interesting person. 

In A COLD WHITE SUN, one of the POV characters is an ex-soldier suffering PTSD from his experiences in Afghanistan. And he’s a man, to boot.  Do I know anything about that? Nope, but I can use what little knowledge I do have from reading to try to put myself into his head.

In my work in progress a POV character has just been released from prison after serving 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit.  A difficult head space to put myself in. But I’m trying, because I know I don’t have to write what I know.



Monday, November 25, 2013

A new take on a classic

If you were going to rewrite a classic and adapt it to modern day (something like Clueless did for Jane Austen's Emma), which classic would you choose? How would you rewrite it?

by Meredith Cole

To be honest, I really like most of the original classics and don't think they need a modern spin. I did enjoy Clueless and the modern Sherlock Holmes on the BBC, so I certainly don't think all adaptations are bad. But the idea that modern readers can't read the classics (or modern TV viewers need black and white classics "colorized" so they're more palatable) is an abhorent idea.

There are writing exercises which suggest that fledgeling writers attempt to "write like" a great author, or take one of their plots and copy them. Either one is definitely interesting to attempt. Trying to write in someone else's voice can make you more aware of voice and help you find your own. And trying to replicate the plot of a master can show you how to create better plots of your own.

I did rewrite a classic once--an Agatha Christie. I gave "Twelve Little Indians" a modern spin, but kept quite a few of her plot points (plus her crazy twist of an ending) intact, and made the story into a screenplay. It was a fun exercise, and the process of deciding which plot points to keep and which to ignore made me appreciate Agatha Christie even more. She definitely knew how to keep a story moving. But the process also made me aware of how old fashioned she was and how she was very much a product of her time.

What classics would you like to see adapted to modern day (either by you or someone else)? And which can't you stand? Do tell...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ignorance Is Bliss

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

I have never taken a writers' class or joined a writers' group. The only books on writing I've ever read are Stephen King's On Writing (can't recommend it enough) and The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes, which I read nearly twenty years ago. I own a copy of Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, but haven't read it yet.

I've always heard a murder mystery must have a dead body on the first page.  To that I say, Bite Me!

I've always heard a good writer avoids using "said."  Really? Tell that to Mr. King.

I write. Period. Unfettered by rules and constraints, except for those of good grammar, spelling and sentence construction, I put the words in my head on to the page. That process might not work for everyone, but it works for me and has for more than 17 books. My head is filled with ideas, plots and dialogue, not with do's and don'ts. They, the rules not the ideas, can suffocate the creative process if one is not careful.

The best learning tool a writer has at his or her disposal is reading books by other authors, both good and bad. I can honestly say that I have learned as much from bad books as I have from the best. The difference is I seldom finish a bad book. Nothing makes me shiver with authorly excitement more than reading or listening to a book that is so good it makes me swoon with aspiration; that maybe one day, with hard work and attention to my craft, I might, just might, touch the hem of that other writer's prose.

Another thing,  I seldom read books similar to my own. I write a ghost series but have only read two other ghost books. I write a vampire series but have never read a vampire novel. I also try to keep my intake of cozy or cozy-ish books at a minimum. I do everything I can to leave my voice clean and particular to me. I know I'm missing out on a lot of good reading by doing that, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make to keep my voice untainted, even unconsciously.

On Writing aside, the best writing advice I've ever read was from Chuck Wendig, which goes under the category of wish I'd said that:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worst. Advice. Ever.

That's easy.

I had written two books, using the Benny Hill Method (brakes off at the top and wheeeee . . . (bathtub optional)) aka the Wayne's World Method (First draft! First draft! Party time! Excellent!) and then I went to a Society of Authors workshop where a proper writer told me I should have a synopsis, outline, chapter plan and character sketches in place before I wrote a word of the story itself.

So I got different coloured sheets of paper and did myself a chapter plan, a calendar (including phases of the moon) and five character biographies.  I didn't do a synopsis or outline because I didn't know what they were or how they were different from each other.

Finally I started writing.  Plodding along, bored and grumpy, feeling like someone who'd been told to write up the minutes after a meeting.  About a third of the way in, I couldn't stand it anymore and ripped up the coloured paper.  It was pretty.  Like confetti. 

After that, writing was interesting again and the story grew legs and ran, then grew wings and flew.  As usual it didn't land where I had expected it to.  But here's the thing - the first third, the bit that I had done "properly", contained no clues about the unexpected twist.  I had to go back and put them in by hand.  The two thirds I'd written after the day of the confetti was already stuffed with clues to the twist I hadn't seen coming.

Since then I've learned that there are just as many chaotic, weeping, white-knuckle writers are there are meticulous, orderly, seed-sowing writers.  Both kinds produce books I love, both kinds are great fun at parties, and both kinds share one talent: they can ignore each other's advice like pros.  Vive la difference!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Writing with a GPS

by Clare O'Donohue

Question: What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class (or in a writing craft book)?

I have no sense of direction. I get lost going pretty much everywhere. Seriously. I can't tell west from inside out, or up from turn left ahead. That's what directions sound like to me - nonsensical blather.

The invention of the GPS was, as the saying goes, the greatest thing since sliced bread. Although, if I can digress, what is so amazing about pre-sliced bread? Is drawing a knife through a loaf such a time suck that having it done for you is so wonderful it stands as the standard against which all inventions are measured?

See what happened there? I was making a point and I got lost.

Happens to me all the time. So the advice about "Know everything that will happen in your book before you sit down to write" seems like it was written for me. Know your characters, their backgrounds, their fears and hopes. Know the clues, the red herrings And most of all know which one is the killer.

Great, right? Without a plan, logic follows, I could start writing a murder mystery and end up with a cookbook. No one wants that.

And yet, that's absolutely awful advice. At least for me. I hear JK Rowling did a post-it for each scene of the Harry Potter books and they made a tidy profit, so it works for some people. But for me. Yuck.

Here's why. I write to find out who the characters are, their hopes and fears etc... I write to find out which one of them is most likely to have done the murder and then have my detective catch him. I write because I don't know where I'm going and I want to find out. If I already knew, then why bother with all the hard work of writing the book? The puzzle would have been solved.

Not knowing what I'm doing might mean I have a fair amount of changing and editing and "Oh crap, what have I done there" moments, but it keeps me involved in the story, keeps me plugging away until I finally reach the end.

So all those who outline their work, bravo to you. I'm sure it's a simple, straight forward journey from A to B. Nothing wrong with that. But for me, the worst advice ever.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Just the facts, Ma'am? Screw you; I'd rather embellish.

Worst writing advice I ever received: Only give the reader what they need to know.

The wisdom behind the message: Keep the pace pumping with news as it happens. Keep pushing the story forward, not sideways onto a tangent or backwards into a flashback. Stay current, stay relevant, and clip along quickly. Don't give the reader a reason to be bored and put the book down.

Who this advice is great for: Authors who indulge in long passages of setting, backstory, internal monologue, physical description, et cetera.

Who this advice was dead wrong for: Me.

When I wrote my first novel, I had taken a few writing courses where I learned a lot of very useful things. But I was petrified of too much exposition. I followed all the rules I'd learned about killing your darlings and deleting any unnecessary parts, and then I followed them again.

The result: My first novel was written almost entirely in dialogue. Very little setting, almost no visuals on the characters. And only the backstory that's relevant as a clue or red herring. Anything else fell victim to my delete key.

I don't totally hate my first novel. (Dead Politician Society, ECW Press, 2010) It's fun and fast and it gave me a quirky protagonist who I really like to work with. But the story clips along at a racing pace and never stops to breathe or hang out with the characters.

If I could write it again, I'd...

Actually this is the really cool part: I am in the middle of a rewrite. Three years and two novels later, I'm working with an ECW Press editor to fix what I feel was broken about my debut novel.

I'm adding flesh to the characters—flesh they already had in my mind, but I kept from the book because I was afraid of breaking Elmore Leonard's Rules 8, 9, & 10. I'm slowing down to look around—to see the setting a bit more, to feel the events more fully, to (hopefully) give the resolution more impact for knowing these characters better.

The story will still be fun and fast—I'm not restructuring it or changing the plot. I'm just giving the reader more than they need to know.

Because to hell with the rules. Rules aren't why any of us want to be writers.

If you'd like to read along with this rewrite, we're posting the whole book on Wattpad a few chapters at a time. Click here to go there.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Body On Page One

 This week's question: What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?

I’m struggling with this week’s question because the classes I’ve taken have been mostly in the form of conference sessions or short seminars, where I tend to internalize one important idea. My own filtering process eliminates some that don’t work in my writing.  The only multi-week course I took was from the witty, smart Judy Greber, a.k.a. Gillian Roberts, who has made it a point to never give bad advice.

The most useless idea I ever picked up can’t be blamed on a speaker, but on my simplistic interpretation of more seasoned advice. Mystery writers everywhere have heard this one: You need a body on page one. So untrue, and not something any of the successful authors whose words I lapped up would say. I tried it a few times, got pretty close to page one, but making it a hard and fast rule is artificial to my style of storytelling.

What teachers do say is that in the crime fiction genre you need a conflict on page one. Your job is to signal that the world the reader has entered is not quite as it should be. Preferably, the friction will be related to the protagonist’s coming crisis. However, I’ve read the work of some good storytellers whose first conflict has to do with putting the kids to bed, or having the correct bus fare, or falling on the ice. These writers use that conflict, however seemingly distant from the primary plotline, to show me something about the protagonist or her world, the world that will be disturbed by what happens on the main stage.

That’s not to say some authors don’t start with a body on page one, and do it brilliantly. Police procedurals frequently start there, since that’s the moment the cops begin their detecting narrative. Serial killer novels may start with the villain disposing of his latest victim in some cruel fashion, so that we get an idea of the heinous character of the criminal. But if every piece of crime fiction had to start there, think how bored readers would be, how predictable and formulaic the genre would become.

 - Susan

Friday, November 15, 2013

What Are We Doing Today?

by Gary

To me the mystery novel is a look into our flawed and contradictory human condition.  By its very definition, the mystery novel and by extension the crime story, are about ordinary people pushed to their limit.  Perpetrator and victim have their roles to play, but it’s often fascinating how is they came to be in those positions.  What are the external and internal conditions that have driven your characters to this point that have brought them together or more accurately, pitted them against each other.  That it’s obvious to have the thief want to rob the rich man, but once you’ve put the reader in the skin of both of these characters, they become more than just “types,” and perhaps your twist will be that the thief was once rich, and the well-off person obtained those riches through ill gotten means.
Further, Raymond Chandler noted in his classic essay on mystery writing, “The Simple Art of Murder,” the following, “The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication.”
Having a background as a community organizer and running social change non-profits, this work couldn’t help but inform the sort of crime and mystery stories I wanted to write.  Justice is an elusive quality yet we as members of society strive for setting things right – be it the small scale of getting that pot hole your street to making sure you and the little old ladies on their way to the grocery store with the creaky carts, can walk down those streets unmolested.  I suppose it is that we seek order of a sort, a comfort that when we walk out of our door, we can return to our abode after a hard day of honest labor.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to having a fascination with the criminal, the ones who routinely take a step over the line in pursuit of their illegal goals.  The caveat being the thinking criminal.  Though a character study of a thug has its place as well.  But from the comics Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom, to prose and Westlake’s professional thief Parker, E.W. Hornung’s (Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law) A. J. Raffles, a master batsman as it were, a member of the upper class who steals from the upper class, and Marcel Allain’s Fantômas, to TV's Walter "Heisenberg" White the machinations of these amoral sort resonate with me – vicariously of course.
Now you’ll have to excuse me, I have some matters to attend to.  As Pinky was wont to ask, “What are we doing today, Brain.?”
“The same thing we do every day, Pinky.  We try to take over the world!”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who Loves Ya, Baby?

by Alan

Why crime? What is it about the gutters and dark alleys of the
world that compels you to write crime fiction?

Because we’re talking crime here, I think it’s appropriate to use, uh, bullet points.

  • Justice – I have a well-developed sense of right and wrong, but in the real world, justice doesn’t always prevail. In my world, justice does prevail, often with extreme prejudice.
  • High stakes, high drama – Often, crime is about life and death. For the victims, for the perpetrators, for those suffering the fallout of life-shattering events. Writing about characters in these situations makes for compelling drama.
  • Anything goes – criminals do some nasty, nasty things, so as a writer, I don’t feel constrained in any way about what I can write about. I can be as nasty as I want! kojak
  • Fascination – As a kid, my TV diet consisted of the great cop/detective shows of the 70’s: Mannix, The Rockford Files, The FBI, Adam-12, Barnaby Jones, Ironside, McMillan & Wife, Banacek, Columbo, Streets of San Francisco, Tenafly, Cannon, Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Kojak, McCloud, Harry O, Shaft, Cool Million, and for some reason, Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels. For me, it’s not so much “write what you know,” but “write what you’ve watched a million times.”
  • Inside knowledge – It would be a shame to waste the 15 years I spent at Leavenworth.

Crime: it’s what all the cool kids are writing!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why I Kill

By Tracy Kiely

I have to admit, I’ve gotten this question before. It’s a popular one at writers’ conferences. Usually I answer with something along the lines of, “Mysteries are great because you can guarantee that the bad guy will get his just desserts. We live in a world where there is so much chaos, injustice, and just plain stupidity that it’s nice to create a world where order reigns, where there is justice, and where nice people do get ahead.” For the most part, I believe this. But then, every once in awhile, something happens, and I realize that no; this is not the case. I write mysteries because certain things happened that annoy the crap out of me.
My eldest son is seventeen and will be off to college next year. As our first, we have NO idea what this process entails as we grew up in a time when people knew what a typewriter was and the fax machine was still only a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.  So my husband and I try our best. We lean the language (unweighted GPA is your grade; weighted GPA gives you an extra .5 per class if it’s an honor’s class).  It’s kind of maddening. The other day, as we were getting ready to send in his applications, we noticed an error on his transcript. We called the counselor. She pulled it up. She assured us that the mistake had been corrected and that the version we were looking at was an old copy.  She assured us that all the transcripts that were sent out did not have an error on them. She then sent us the “corrected version;” the one she’d sent out to all the schools.
It had the error on it.
Seriously, this is what she said, when we pointed this out: “Oops! I guess I shouldn’t multitask!” 
At this point my husband went in to talk to her; it being agreed that I should not as I’d begun to mumble and play with the kitchen knife.
Here’s what happened:

Husband:       So, do schools look at the weighted or unweighted GPA?
Counselor:      Well, we tell students to base their applications on the weighted GPA.
Husband:       Okay. But what do the colleges look at?
Counselor:      Well, we only send the weighted GPA to the schools. It’s really unusual for them to sit down and calculate the unweighted GPA.

Husband then thanks her and leaves. He calls, and tells me the about their conversation. I then look down at our copy of the transcript. It lists both his weighted and unweighted GPA.
I email counselor and ask:  So, do you send both GPAs?
Counselor:  Yes. We send both.

This is why I sometimes have to write stores that involving people dying. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Conflict and Tragedy: it makes the world go 'round.

By Vicki Delany

Why crime? What is it about the gutters and dark alleys of the world that compels you to write crime fiction?
It’s not the gutters and dark alleys that make me write crime fiction, but the dark side of the human experience, wherever it is found, and how we handle it.

“When I decided to become a police officer I knew I’d have to deal with the hard side of life. Beaten children, raped women, accident victims, blood and gore. But that’s not the hardest part, is it? It’s the goddamn tragedy of people’s lives.”
Constable Molly Smith to Sergeant John Winters, Among the Departed by Vicki Delany

It’s conflict and tragedy, not love, that makes the world go round.

Crime novels, it has been said, show the human psyche under pressure.

Crime novels take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

Would I do the right thing, or would I fail?

In the latest Constable Molly Smith book, A Cold White Sun, tragedy strikes a comfortable family.  A family much like yours perhaps.

Cathy Lindsay, middle-aged, middle-class, married mother of two, high school English teacher, gunned down by a sniper one sunny winter’s day walking her bichon frise on the snowy trail above town.

Cathy is not the sort of woman to be the target of what appears to be, if not a professional killer, a highly motivated and trained amateur.  And Trafalgar, B.C. is not the sort of town where things like that happen.

The police have no motive, no suspects, no clues. What if, they fear, Cathy was not the intended victim? Does someone else in the close-knit town of Trafalgar have a target on their back?

Although on the surface A Cold White Sun is about the police investigation into the killing, it’s really about the reactions of those close to Cathy Lindsay. Particularly her husband, Gord. We know from the beginning that Gord is not the killer, although the police have their suspicions. He struggles first with understanding what has happened, and then wonders how he’s going to live the rest of his life without Cathy.  Gord has two children still living at home, a borderline juvenile delinquent named Bradley and a sweet little girl, Jocelyn, who at ten years old faces a future without her mother’s support and guidance.

For the rest of her years, Jocelyn would miss her mother. There would be an empty place at her wedding; no one to give her kindly advice on the birth of her first child. No shoulder for her to cry on when life got too hard. No one to tell her to buck up, and suggest they chase away her worries by indulging in some retail therapy.

No one to tell her the facts of life.

Gord put his head in his hands and wept.

He wept for himself as much as he wept for his daughter. All that Cathy had done, all that she had been in their lives, would now fall on him.

He knew he wasn’t up to it.

              A Cold White Sun, by Vicki Delany

In my writing and my reading, I have little interest in chasing vampires or diabolical maniacs threatening to explode nuclear weapons, or in rogue government agents fighting the system to save the world.  What I want to read about, and to write about, is ordinary people living ordinary lives, facing extra-ordinary tragedies.

It’s through the lens of the crime novel that we can explore people under extreme pressure.  The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

Hold your sympathy for Gord. He’s not perfect (not many of us are) and he begins to think that the unexpected death of his wife just might help him out in the long run. You see, there’s this woman in Victoria.

Love and death and tragedy.  They fit seamlessly together in a crime novel.

As they do in real life.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Death is the ultimate drama

by Meredith Cole

Why crime? Why do I write about violence and murder? Great question. And it's definitely one I've heard before from people (although it's mostly people who don't read mysteries).

I write about crime for the same reason I read about crime. It's compelling. And death is the ultimate drama. It's worth reading 300 pages to find out why or who or what happened.

We are all fascinated by death. We feel compelled to watch shows that feature serial killers and mysterious murders. We are probably both searching for answers and also trying to protect ourselves in the future. We can walk away from a story about someone killed while hitchhiking, for instance, and tell ourselves that we would never do that so we're somehow safe.

I don't really focus my fiction on the kinds of people for whom a life of crime is a daily affair. I like to write about people who perhaps have never seen a dead body or have never had their life threatened before. Murder is still shocking for them, and hopefully also for the reader.

And speaking of murder... If you like mysteries (and crime fiction) as much as I do, check out the latest short story anthology I'm in, Virginia is for Mysteries! The book has just gone to print and it's available now for pre-order. The book was put together by two Sisters in Crime chapters in Virginia, and has stories set around the state.