Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Petronella Aardvark, P.I.

by Catriona.

Some names are easy. Opal Jones in As She Left It had her name when she popped into my head. The working title for the story was Opal Jones Comes Home; it's a terrible name for a mystery but it's fun to say and I said it about ten times a day while I was working on the first draft. And she looks like an Opal.

Late on in the final draft, I realised that I couldn't have a character, in the same book as Opal, who was called Olive. That leads me to one of the few pieces of writing advice I will stand by, no matter what: when changing a character's name from Olive to Norah via global search and replace, watch out for scenes with pizza.

It's not always as easy as Opal Jones. The heroine of the book I'm working on now was born as Tash Harkness and, no matter how I wooed her, she wouldn't come out and show herself. Then I changed her name to Gloria Morrison and boom! She was fifteen years older, with a different job, a completely different personality and a new story she wouldn't shut up about. I feel a bit sorry for Tash Harkness, though, floating around in limbo. Maybe she'll parachute into a new story one day.

I suppose the most important names to get right are those you're going to be living with, year in and year out, in a series, til you're ancient and bitter and dead (it's going well; thanks for asking). And I'm okay with Dandy Gilver. It's unusual enough to be memorable but it's plain enough not be annoying when I type it for the thousandth time.

You've got feel for Agatha Christie, who got so sick of Hercule Poirot that she ended up parodying herself in the character of Ariadne Oliver, who invented a Finnish detective called Sven Hjerson. Some of the irritation was about nationality - Oliver knew as little about Finland as Christie knew about Belgium - but "Hercule" and "Poirot" can't have helped, right?

Some of my favourite names are just flat-out stolen. In the first draft of A Bothersome Number of Corpses I named a gaggle of characters after my brand-new California friends. I always meant to change the names once I had time to research them, but with only a tweak or two these 21st-century American women made perfect 1920s Scottish schoolgirls. Sally Madden was fine, Katie Howard  was fine, Eileen Rendahl became the slightly less Scandinavian Eileen Rendall, Stella Ruiz became the quite a lot less Latina (and very posh) Stella Rowe-Issing. Spring Warren worried if maybe "Spring" wasn't a name then. I reassured her that it's not a name now.

And in the newest Dandy Gilver, The Reek of Red Herrings, I've pinched another one. A friend, going through family papers while settling an estate, found an ancestor called Euphemia Clatchie and immediately emailed me. I challenge anyone to think "Euphemia Clatchie" and not get a clear picture of her. Sometimes characters just write themselves . . .

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

What’s in a name? So much I hardly know where to begin. I have to admit, first off, that I come up short if I count on my own fertile imagination: John, Mary, Smith, Jones…I tend to blank out. Early on, someone recommended the phone book, but that’s too many choices. I was paralyzed after reading a whole page looking for a perfect name to steal. There are online name sites that can be fun and they are particularly good if you’re searching for popular names in a given year or decade (very few Ednas in 1991, but America was drowning in Ashleys that year) or foreign names, as I have been doing for my story set in France.

I like names that give off a whiff of the character, but didn’t realize how close I’d come in my first book with “Winship (Win) Thorne” until one of my sons, both of whom far surpass me in linguistic skills, pointed out that the man with the dark drive to score big and the prickly personality was well named.

Have you noticed what I realized after bonding with my series protagonist, Danielle O’Rourke, usually known as Dani, that many female protagonists have gender-ambiguous names? Georgie, Kinsey, Jerri, Munch…could go on, but I think the underlying and perhaps unconscious aim is to avoid rendering them too stereotypically soft to deal with murderers while allowing their voices to remain female.

Sometimes, I’ll be well into a manuscript when I notice the character name doesn’t fit the personality that’s emerging. I thank the writing gods for the Search and Replace function when that happens, when the character turns out not to be a charming Robby but a manipulative Leroy.* It's odd how much the wrong name gets me off balance. Sometimes I'm not even sure what's slowing me down until I type it for the hundredth time and suddenly realize I can't see this character - he or she has become opaque to me. And I had an annoying experience recently when the perfectly named character had to have her name changed. It was Cherry, which someone pointed out was too much like cherie, the French term of endearment everyone in scenes she's in tosses around. Oh, rats. 

 What's in a name? Everything.

*For all the non-manipulative Leroys out there, this is where I assure you that responses to names are subjective, fickle, and say more about the person having the response than the named subject.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, Coroner, Private Eye

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, which area would see yourself in and why? The coroner’s office? Homicide division? Beat cop? Criminal psychologist? Private investigator? Defense attorney?

by Paul D. Marks

Of the list above, I know which I absolutely would not want to do: Defense attorney: Even Alan Dershowitz concedes that most defendants are guilty. And I couldn't defend a guilty party, especially because the tactics used by the defense are often despicable – particularly when they try to throw the blame on another clearly innocent party to confuse the issue and throw doubt on their often clearly guilty clients. I just could not defend a rapist or a murderer. So, no defense attorney for me. Maybe that’s why I wrote my story L.A. Late @ Night that appeared originally in Murder on Sunset Boulevard (and recently republished in a collection of my stories also called L.A. Late @ Night) about a defense attorney who has second thoughts when she realizes her client is guilty and decides to do something about it...

That leaves the rest of the list:

Coroner's office: Well, I've seen my fair share of blood and guts. That said, I'm also the kind of person who whenever they hear/see symptoms of a disease decides they have that disease. Which is why I can't watch shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy. I guess I can handle blood and guts to some extent, but not symptoms. I think this is what happens with medical students (so maybe I should have been a doctor). So, nope, coroner's office is kaput.

Homicide division: Now we're getting closer. The idea of solving cases and bringing the bad guys to justice strikes home with me. Yeah, I could do that. Third degree and all, with a new energy-saving bulb of course.

Beat cop: Nah. Dealing with all the bad and crazy people you'd have to deal with would make me nuts. And I'd probably end up in the hoosegow myself. That's sort of what my story 51-50, cop slang for crazy, is about. (Originally published in the Psycho Noir issue Dave Zeltserman's Hardluck Stories anthology, but now reprinted in the L.A. Late @ Night collection.)

Criminal psychologist: While psychology interests me, to deal with all those psychos would probably make me psycho and you'd have to have a gun with a hair trigger taped under your desk aiming straight at your client...just in case. Probably not a good way to begin a relationship.

Private investigator: Yeah, now you're talking. Bring the bad guys to justice. And you get to wear a trenchcoat and fedora and use words like gat and gunsel. And slap guys like eternal weasels Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre around. Of course, you take your fair share of beatings too, so turnabout is fair play I guess. But still, gumshoe. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Or P.I., private dick, private eye, shamus, Pinkerton or Continental Op. And though he's more modern, I hope Duke Rogers, my P.I. in White Heat, carries on their tradition with grace and gats. And you get to have an office in a romantically seedy building with the proverbial flashing neon sign outside the window and the perpetual pitter patter of rain on that window that looks out to the City of Angels. Oh, and here's a happy little ditty about our fair city:

There's one element that was left off the list above: Prosecutor: Probably the best fit for me. A lot of people that have known me through the years say I should have been a lawyer (though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not...),. I like the idea of being a litigator 'cause I love a good fight. Corporate law, nah. Criminal law, the D.A.'s office, sure. Being able to put the bad guys away, to argue a case. To logically prove a guilty party guilty. Prosecutor would be a good fit for me. But if I chose that route could I still wear the trenchcoat and fedora?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Giving up on the day-job

So what are the choices? Bobby on the beat, detective, solicitor, barrister, judge, pathologist, crime scene tech, PI, profiler, dinnerlady . . .

I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.

Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.

For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.

There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)

When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material.  Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series?  It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".

So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.

Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.

And - if you'll forgive some blatant BSP (since it's publication day) - it's a lot of fun ignoring the advice to write what you know and, instead, writing what you want and finding out what you need to know. 1930s fishing industry and Aberdeenshire wedding traditions? Go on - ask me anything.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Let's Be Careful Out There"

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, what part of the profession would you choose?

I can hear my friends and family snorting as they considering this on my behalf. If ever there was a match not made in heaven it would be me and law enforcement. So many reasons…

1.     I’m too empathetic. Really, I’m an old-fashioned, totally out of fashion bleeding heart liberal and am sure I could be convinced that the burglar with the bag full of Mrs. Jones’ silverware was only trying to take it to be cleaned as a favor to her.

2.     I hate guns. Some reasons are personal; my family has been touched by gun violence. Some reasons are practical. I’m not sure I understand the concept of a trigger guard, and it’s not on my life list to learn. Mostly, I think how precious life is, how hard we work to save life in other situations, and compare it to the instantaneous blowing away of lives on TV and in the real world.

3.     In a profession where cops, psychologists, lawyers, investigators have to make decisions, combining facts with intuition, I would fail miserably. I noticed a few years ago that I cannot look at a face and see the bad seed. I would see a newspaper photo of a proven killer and think, “Oh, he’s a nice looking kid.” (I’m more accurate where female faces are concerned. What does that say about me?)

4.     I have too much imagination. The other side of being credulous, soft-hearted, and wary of weapons is that I have a writer’s imagination. Getting to “what if?” is easy and fast for me, and I’d spend my whole life, were I in law enforcement, in a nervous crouch, hand on that trigger guard, scanning faces for clues, getting ulcers.

Best that I stay on the sidelines, writing about fictional crime, albeit stories influenced by the over-abundance of the real thing. My hat is off to the thousands of individuals who have careers within the overall law enforcement field and who stay with it year after year, retaining their compassion, professional standards, and mental and physical wellbeing. In the immortal words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the wonderful actor Michael Conrad on ”Hill Street Blues,”

“Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Who, What, Why, When and Where Dunit?

When you start a new book do you know whodunit from the get-go? If so, how do you ensure you don't unconsciously give it away? And if not, when do you decide whodunit?

by Paul D. Marks

I have to start off sort of like I started the last blog post two weeks ago. Then it was 'yes' and 'no' to the question. Now it's 'it depends'. Because there is no right or wrong way to do anything most of the time. So sometimes you know who the badguy is from the get-go, and sometimes you don't.

Different stories generate from different ideas and sometimes those ideas are more "complete" than other times. Sometimes you might come up with a good villain and build the story around them, so you know whodunit right off and work up to that.

Sometimes you start with the main character or a peripheral character, so you might not know whodunit. And if you work like me, a "pantster," you just start writing and see where it goes—and can even be surprised by whodunit. And sometimes (there's that iffy word again) you have a plot idea or a hook or some notes or thoughts in your head about incidents or actions, character bits, dialogue, maybe an opening line or scene, etc., and you weave those into the story as you go and see whodunit from there.

And sometimes you might think you know whodunit...but your characters come to life and have lives of their own, take you in a different direction and surprise you. So the second part of the question—when do you decide whodunit?—works itself out one way or another, depending on which route mentioned here or above you take. At least if you're a pantster. Obviously, people who outline might have all of this worked out ahead of time.

As to how not to unconsciously giveaway who done it – that's where having other people read your story can come in handy. They can see the stuff that the writer is too close to notice. So you read and re-read and write and rewrite, and as you do, you try to catch and fix those kinds of things. And this is where it can be an advantage to be a pantster—since you don’t know who the bad guy is, you end up writing it in a way that doesn’t reveal too much and later, when you’ve figured out who the bad guy is, you can go back and add little hints earlier.

In my novel White Heat, not only do I know who the badguy is from the beginning, but so does the reader (sort of). Because he goes into the main character's office, private detective Duke Rogers, and hires Duke to find a "long lost friend." It's such an easy gig that Duke doesn't even do the paperwork, just tells the guy to come back in a couple of days. Duke gets the info for him, the guy pays for it and splits. Duke doesn't even know his name, or at least his real name. A short time later he's reading the paper, finds the "long lost friend" has been murdered and Duke knows he inadvertently helped the bad guy find her. Feeling guilty, he determines to track the badguy down on his own time. But where to start? As I say, we meet the badguy right away, but we don't really know who he is, where he's from, etc. And that's the main plot of the book, Duke trying to figure out who he is and find him and bring him to justice.

One Amazon reviewer complained that we "know" who the killer is too early on. But, as I say, we do and we don't. We see him, but we don't know who he is or anything substantive about him. This reader had a problem with that, and that's fine. But I knew who the killer was and Duke knew who he was (sort of) and that's the story. Sometimes the mystery is not in ‘who done it’ but in the why, where and how? What I'm trying to say is that for me the story and characters are often more interesting than the whodunit, though that's fun too.

In another example, in my short story Dead Man's Curve, from the anthology Last Exit to Murder, the main character, Ray Hood, is a guy on his uppers. He's old, he's a druggie and his glory days as a backup guitarist for Jan and Dean are behind him. So when he gets a chance to do an illegal favor for a friend that might lead to his eventually getting another shot at the spotlight he jumps at it. But what interests me is Ray's story, more than the overarching plot or whodunit, as we know who dun it early on. I was even concerned that the editors might want to take out a couple of "quiet" scenes that didn't necessarily advance the plot, but they didn't and I was glad. Especially because those were my favorite scenes in the story. The scenes where we get to know Ray, see what happened to him, see his day to day life. The rest of the story moves ahead at a quick pace, those scenes slow it down a bit, but in a good way, I think. I guess what I’m saying here is that even though I write mystery and noir stuff I tend to focus more on characters and the why rather than the who done it.

clip_image004We all read mysteries for different reasons, but a lot of the time it is because we want a sense of justice and good triumphing over evil, as well as for character and the actual "mystery". Even in noir and hardboiled there is ultimately some kind of justice, though it is usually a little muddied and unclear. In real life murders go unsolved for years, sometimes never to be solved. The Black Dahlia murder is still unsolved, but in fiction it has been solved dozens of times. So the who-dunit is obviously important to us. We want resolution, but we also want to learn and experience something more than just whodunit. We want to know the characters on a deeper level and the why of it and that's important too.

And Happy Fourth of July to everyone:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Goldilocks and The Five Books

Do I always know whodunit? No.

Is that a problem when it comes to pitching clues? Oh, yes.

I've written ten Dandy Gilver mysteries now and I've been surprised at the end of four of them when I find out who the murderer is.  Four or five. I can't actually remember who the murderer is in the one I've just finished writing because I haven't read it yet. (See other posts for extreme pantserhood).

When I changed my mind about the culprit at the end of Book 1, I reckoned I didn't need to change anything else earlier in the story. It was all there, pulsing on page. However, three out of four of the first ms readers didn't know whodunit when they had finished the book. That is not really a very great state of affairs. So I did change it to make things less oblique but I still come across readers who don't agree with me about whodunit in AFTER THE ARMNISTICE BALL. They don't seem to mind and who am I to argue.

But I started Book 2 determined to stamp all that sort of nonsense out and the result is that everyone always knows whodunit halfway through THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. Ah well. Again, people don't seem to mind.

Then there's Book 3 - BURY HER DEEP - aka The Concept Album, or in the words of Dave Headley of Goldsboro Books (one of my favourite bookshops and one of my favourite people) "the one where nothing happens". So the question doesn't arise but again no one seems bothered.

But I knew better than to try it twice. In Book 4, tons happens. It's a veritable circus. No, really - it's a circus. Look:

But even though THE WINTER GROUND is packed with incident and characters, not many of the incidents are clues and not many of the characters are suspects. It's still one my favourites, though. Because . . . circus.

Finally, came Book 5 where I got it juuuuust right. I did know whodunit all along, every character is a suspect, every incident is either a red herring or a clue, and it's my absolute favourite, because I knew I had cracked it. DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS was when all kinds of extra great things started to happen.

Still, I was back to changing my mind about whodunit for Book 6. I knew in Book 7. Changed my mind in Book 8. Changed it again in Book 9 and, like I said, for Book 10 I'll get back to you.

So . . . why all the covers, which are not really needed to answer this question? Well, I've just got the advance copies of the gorgeous, newly re-Dalmatianed US edition of A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE (November):

And also the brand-new and quite delicious UK Book 9 (July):

which is as stuffed with clues (and fake clues) as the title suggests.

It did occur to me, writing this post, that if I had ever taken a creative writing course, I might not have spent four books working out how to do it, but I love those four books and loved writing them too . . . so je ne regret (almost) rien.

But now that I have learned how to weave the clues and the red herrings, can I pass any useful tips along? 

All the advice this week has been great - hiding in plain sight, balancing prominence (no guest-star baddies a la Columbo), shooting for 90% bamboozlement - but I'll offer one more. Well, I'm really just adding to what Lori said yesterday. The first clue has to come as early as possible, I think. Then, if they can flit in and out of sight at fairly regular intervals  - not necessarily frequent, but regular - the truth is close enough to a reader's consciousness for the denouement to provoke an "Aha!" or even a "D'oh!". Too many clues too close together though can result in a nasty "Duh!".

And what they flit in and out of sight amongst are the red herrings. Those are the other trees that make up the wood that stops a reader seeing anything clearly. Ideally, they need to be spaced out just as carefully. Like this:

This draft (not Dandy Gilver - a stand-alone) is not quite there yet. Clearly there aren't enough orange things in the first half. But I'm working on it. Wish me luck.