Thursday, May 31, 2018

Who dis?

QUESTION: Point of view is pesky. What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV? By Catriona

Forgive the indulgence. They made this
for me at Malice, when I was toast-mastering.
When am I going to get to use it? It's like a tiara.

Truth is I'm going to have to stretch a point to answer this week's question, because I've never used more than one point of view in a single story. Not really. I've had one character briefly paraphrase another's words, in effect adopting their voice for a bit, but that's about it.

I've tried. When I was beginning to write The Child Garden, the plan was to have two POV characters - Gloria and Stig - and write chapter about in close third person. I still think that would have been interesting. But I'm quite an organic writer (like a steaming compost heap is organic) and I was a quarter of the way in before I realised it was all Gloria's point of view and she was talking. I loved her voice though, which was a consolation. I call it "first person unaware". In other words she speaks completely openly and reveals much more than she knows. 

It's like the opposite of that cheaty veil-drawing that lets some crimewriters hide their plotting. You know: "I read the letter through to the end, sumarised it for my trusty sidekick and then burned it on the fire, before going out onto the moor to do what it had commanded." Blech.

I don't notice POV unless its badly done, usually. I've got a close friend*- a fellow writer; you know who you are - who can't read 1st person when she's writing. I've lost count of the number of times I've recommended a book, then she asks about POV and I think hard and say "no clue". And I just checked my standalones because, apart from Gloria in The Child Garden, I wasn't sure how many were 1st and how many 3rd. (Two are 3rd. Four are 1st. Of the WIPs . . . I dunno. I'd have to check. (I hope someone reassures me in the comments that this is normal.))

*I've got another close friend - a fellow writer; you know who you are - whose most frequent negative comment on novels is "All the head-hopping!", delivered with hand gestures, golfball eyes and much despair. 

A few fancy-schmancy POV choices I've thought were particularly well done were: Hilary Mantel's very, very, very close 3rd in Wolf Hall. Go, Thomas!; Lionel Shriver's kinda nearly second in the epistolary (and outstanding imho) We Need To Talk About Kevin; and Irvine Welsh's complete control over the three ring circus that was Trainspotting.

I'm such a POV wimp. The most ambitious thing I've ever done is write a one page prologue (settle down, Elmore) that was "close no person". I wanted to hide who it was that was experiencing the action and who it was driving it. I ended up with:

"The walls, rough-formed from great black lumps of stone, ran dank and wet like the flanks of a sweating beast. Single drips and rivulets coursed the length of the stairway, three full storeys and more, sliming the steps and fouling the air.
Footsteps skittered down a half-flight’s turn, then slipped and stumbled the next half  to a respite at the dark landing. Terrified breaths filled the close damp, breaking into whimpers and sinking into groans.
When at last those ragged breaths were caught, into the silence came a second set of footsteps, the steadier tread of a pursuer advancing, no halting, no hurry.
‘I’m sorry. But I have to.’ The voice wavered, as though from a recent shock, still reverberating.
The voice that came in answer was flat and dead. ‘No. I am sorry. But I cannot allow it.’
There was a scuffle, quick and grim, then a rush of unruly noise filled the tower: gasps and shrieks; scrapes and thuds. Last, a resonant crack! like a coconut, heavy with milk, raised and smashed. Then nothing."

And I couldn't have kept it up much longer without screaming. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Through a glass...darkly by Cathy Ace

QUESTION: Point of view is pesky. What's the hardest aspect of POV you deal with in your storytelling with one or more POV?

RESPONSE: This is a juicy one! For my Cait Morgan Mysteries I used the personal point of view, which felt natural for me. Cait was very much like me, and I enjoyed writing in her/my voice for this series.

However, I knew I’d change it up for my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries, because I had six distinct characters, and I wanted each of them to have their own voice, and viewpoint (this grew to seven in books #3 and #4). And that’s where the challenges began – with a group of Brits, all from different parts of the UK, and different strata of society, I knew it was more than “voice” I had to create…I had to create “voice” whilst using the correct cadence and vocabulary for each character, given their background.

This isn’t something new for any writer – we all have to do this when we write dialogue for any character, but differing POVs mean taking this process to an entirely different level, because the writer wants the reader to experience the world through the lens only THAT character has. I needed to attune myself to not just how a character spoke, but how their world-view worked, which is something I believe is critical for differing POVs to work.

Henry Devereaux Twyst (in his 50s) is the eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth: born and raised in Wales, he attended English Prep and Boarding schools, and – although not academically bright – would have acquired the vocabulary and world-view appropriate for his station, and upbringing.

Carol Hill (in her 30s) was raised speaking only Welsh on a sheep farm in south-west Wales, then learned English and powered her way to a Big Job as a computer systems manager for a massive reinsurance company based in the City of London. She's naturally "mumsy" and quite shy, preferring to work with code than people. 

 Christine Wilson-Smythe (in her 20s) is the daughter of an impoverished Irish viscount, so has a northern Irish brogue, flattened by years in English private schools, and mixes with the aristocracy. She’s intensely bright and well-read, and her love-interest is a man from south London who’s had elocution lessons to get rid of his accent, but lived a dark and desperate youth.

Mavis MacDonald (in her 60s) is from south west Scotland, but has spent years traveling the world as an army nurse, finally taking command as a matron of an old-soldiers' barracks in London. She’s lived a life of service, first to her now-dead medically retired soldier husband, then to her two sons, then as a nurse, where she took no nonsense. 

Annie Parker (in her 50s) was born and raised within the sound of Bow Bells, so is a true London Cockney, but her parents migrated from St. Lucia, so she has access to that accent too. She’s worked her entire life in the City of London, surrounded by “bimbos, misogynists and racists”, and her attitude toward the world has been shaped by this.

Althea Twyst is the octogenarian Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, Henry’s mother. Born and raised near London, she was a dancer on stage when she met Henry’s widowed father, the seventeenth duke, and has had to learn how one speaks when mixing with aristocracy. She’s also taken the time to learn to speak Welsh, but rarely uses it. She often lapses back to her original world-view and vocabulary, and is comfortable when she’s with any type of person, largely treating them all the same as each other. 

For each character’s POV I had to "think myself into them” before writing a chapter from their POV…I had to get under their skin. This can be extremely useful for a mystery writer, because – often – the same events will be perceived differently by a different character, and the reader can enjoy different levels of insight and understanding all at the same time.

Writing multiple POVs is a real challenge, but it’s one I enjoy enormously. 

 Cathy Ace writes the Cait Morgan Mysteries and the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. Find out more about Cathy and her work here:

Monday, May 28, 2018

Who's Talking?

Q: What’s the hardest thing you deal with in your books related to storytelling with one or more points of view?

- from Susan

When I started the first book in my first series, it was third person point of view: “she said,” “she thought;” but I felt I was too far away from Dani O’Rourke to get inside her head and to know her as a person. So, I began again in the first person – I told the story from her perspective. It gave me a lot more room for expressing her emotions, but it meant I could only share what she knew either from direct witness or from conversations she was part of. It required a bit of plot juggling, but I got the hang of it.

Three books later, I began a different series and decided I had to be more agile and creative in using the third person because I wanted to tell those stories from multiple direct perspectives – an American expat’s view of her adopted town in France, and someone who had lived there all her life. They were bound to see and understand the dynamics differently. I used what we call “close third person” for both characters, and tried to keep them engaged with other people and each other. I think it worked pretty well. In the second book, the recently released DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDY, there are two POVs again, but the second one is a different person because she is central to this specific story.

Recently, I read a multiple award-winning novel that might be termed a family saga. The story is told in close third from a handful of points of view, sometimes in close narrative proximity. I had no problem with the switching voices, probably because she’s a good writer, but was surprised when I re-read the book to see how she pulled it off.  She sometimes threw in a change of POV right in the middle of a paragraph! That’s a no-no in the writing classes and advice books but I think the story just propelled readers right past it.

I’m now experimenting, hoping I can take some liberties with the ‘rules’ on a stand-alone novel, suspecting that if my editors balk it will be because I haven’t done a good enough job of making these switches seem natural. Rules are fine and to be respected, but I get twitchy when they become brakes rather than guidelines. 

 A bit of promotion: All five of my mysteries are in print and available in print and ebook. The Dani O'Rourke Mysteries are: Murder in the Abstract, The King's Jar, and Mixed Up with Murder. The first French village mystery is Love & Death in Burgundy. Several of my books are also available as audio books if you like to 'read' that way!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Damp, Drizzly November in my Soul

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? 

From Jim

Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1850) is not an easy novel to read. Or, rather, parts of it are difficult. The encyclopedic chapters that tell us more than we’d ever want to know about 19th century whaling, ships, navigation, rigging, monkey ropes, and try-works have perplexed, challenged, and bored countless students for generations. Ever wonder what the rendering of whale blubber smells like?

“(The try-works’ smoke) has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.”

In addition to the stench of melting fat, Melville treats us to exhaustive detail on whales themselves, their heads, teeth, and skeletons, even their dying habits. Talk about loading up on exposition and background... It seems the author, like many of us, was tempted to include every bit of his research come hell or high water—and did! Something approaching half the book has nothing to do with Ahab’s obsessive chase of the great white whale, but is scientific or technical in nature.

Yet I love this book. I love it for its first-person narrator. (I’ve never understood how some obdurate readers can refuse to read anything written in the first person.) Ishmael is, in fact, one of the most famous narrators in all literature. He is the witness. The sole survivor of the Pequod’s fateful voyage. Oh, come on! The book was published 168 years ago. That’s not a spoiler! His opening paragraph is at the same time poetic, literary, and downright modern. Who among us hasn’t felt some kind of wanderlust when we feel a damp, drizzly November in (our) soul? Or when we are tempted to descend into the street and methodically knock people’s hats off? Ishmael takes us from boarding houses in New Bedford, Massachusetts, past maelstroms and through typhoons, all the way around the world. And through his lens we learn what percentage a crewman might make on a three-year voyage in search of precious whale oil. And what might happen to maniacal zealots who obsess over unholy leviathans. Kind of reminds me of a certain foaming-at-the-mouth maniac in the White House and his fixation with his immediate predecessor...

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I get giddy over the allegory and religious imagery in Moby Dick. And the language. It’s antiquated, tragic, and epic. At times it calls to mind the Old Testament. 

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” 

The realization of the Parsee’s prophesy of Ahab’s death “by hemp” is mythical and magical in its accuracy and inevitability.

“The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.” 

After hundreds of pages, Ahab’s death happens in an instant and, though foretold, manages to take us by surprise. And despite popular opinion, Ahab does not end up lashed to the whale. (Except in the movie with Gregory Peck.) It’s the Parsee who suffers that fate. 

Suddenly, it’s the epilogue. The rescue of Ishmael, floating atop a casket sent rocketing from the depths of the vortex caused by the sinking Pequod, hints at a divine mercy. Not even the “gliding sharks” or sea-hawks dare harm him, but witness his deliverance instead.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Turning the pages and raising the bar

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? What book published after 2000?

by Dietrich Kalteis

Some of the classics really came to life and left an impression when I was younger, and I remember certain scenes like I just read them. I’ve reread some of these books over the years, and most have stood the test of time and were as enjoyable the second time around. 

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was in my teens and loved this book. It was originally published anonymously in 1818 when she was just twenty. Her name finally appeared on the second edition, published in France in 1823. Maybe some of the story’s deeper meaning was lost on me back then, but it was still a great story.

More on the dark side, I loved the stories by Edgar Allan Poe, like The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841. Poe was the first well-known American to try to make a living as a writer, and doing it at a time before international copyright laws. Dracula by Bram Stoker was another horror tale I enjoyed, originally published in 1897.

Then there were the classics that didn’t make me check under the bed. I loved Mark Twain’s tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and life on the Mississippi — still do. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, is still considered by many as the great American novel. Hemingway wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

And I loved adventure tales like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the second in the Leatherstocking Series, published in 1826. And there was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick from 1851. I still have that image in my head of Ishmael waiting on rescue, floating on a chunk of the ship as he watches the smashed Pequod go down. There were other great seafaring tales from the late 1800s: Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. And from under the waves: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, released in 1870.

Other classics that left a lasting impression were The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, Ivanhoe by Walter Scott, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas and King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. All of them are unfading, and all were written before 1900.

There are many unforgettable books published since the millennium. I recently  read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, what a terrific book. And a couple from Cormac McCarthy come to mind. The Road is dark, real dark, but it’s also well done and it moves, no wasted words. And No Country for Old Men is nothing short of a modern-day masterpiece. And Elmore Leonard turned out some of his best work, like Pagan Babies, Tishomingo Blues, and Mr. Paradise, writing right up until his death in 2013. And Don Winslow keeps getting better, turning out powerful novels like The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages and The Force

I’m always awaiting the latest from authors like Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and George Pelacanos. Outside the genre, I loved Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, having been a big fan of her music since her album Horses back in the seventies. And there was something special, both fierce and funny, in the writing style of Hunter S. Thompson. And I loved Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. And there were J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. And one that I’ve just started, but one that shows great promise from its opening pages, is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

For me, reading is just the best form of entertainment, and a great book, no matter when it was written, is always sure to inspire and leave an indelible impression.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Indelible Villains

What book published before 1900 left an indelible impression on you? What book published after 2000?

by Terry Shames

I could name Jane Austen or William Makepeace Thackery or anyone of that novelistic ilk. They all made lasting impressions; especially since I’ve read Austen’s books again and again. But the one I’m going to choose here is a book that isn’t really a book, but a long poem: Paradise Lost. It should be of special interest to crime writers, because it illustrates one of the most important rules of that genre—you have to have an interesting villain.

When I was in graduate school at San Francisco State in the 80’s, for reasons now obscure to me, I wanted to take a course in John Milton. There was no such course. I went to the chairman of the Creative Writing Department, Stan Rice, and asked if the department might  consider offering one. He told me there was little general interest in Milton, but that there was a little known provision at SF State, that if I could find a professor on the faculty who was competent to teach such a course, and if he or she were willing, the university would pay the faculty member as it would for any other three-hour class.

Dr. Rice told me that I was in luck—that there was a faculty member who was a Milton scholar. I asked the faculty member if he’d be willing to teach me, a class of one, for three hours a week for a semester. He was thrilled that someone was interested in Milton. He reminded me that as the only student, I would be “on” for the entire class, three hours a week.

It was one of the most wonderful education experiences of my life. I studied hard, determined never to let him down, and in the process I became a Milton devotee. To this day I recall the thrill of finding out for myself, as so many readers of Milton had before me, that the villain, Satan, in Paradise Lost was more interesting than the hero. His observation of life was incisive, his arguments sharper, his fury and despair palpable, and his belief in himself absolute.


“To reign is worth ambition though in hell: Better to reign in hell than serve in heav’n.”

“Moloch, scepter’d king/  Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest spirit/ That fought in heav’n; now fiercer by despair.”

Move forward four centuries, and enter, Hannibal Lecter—the ultimate modern villain: witty, sharp, and utterly convinced of his own worth. The Silence of the Lambs, the most compelling of the books about Lecter was published before 2000, but the final one was published in 2006, so I’m cheating. As a villain Lecter left an indelible impression. There are other books that come to mind, but no more archetypal villain exists.

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences.”

“Evil's just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it's that simple. And we have fire, and there there's hail. Underwriters lump it all under 'Acts of God.” 

“Most people love butterflies and hate moths," he said. "But moths are more interesting - more engaging." 
"They're destructive."
"Some are, a lot are, but they live in all kinds of ways. Just like we do.”

If a crime novel is to be compelling, the protagonist has to have an antagonist who matches his wits. The villain has to have cunning and intelligence, maybe even a dark soul. He has to be absolutely certain of the validity of his actions, and be convinced that it’s better to reign in the world of evil than serve in the world of good. Does that make such villains crazy? No crazier than the Satan portrayed in Paradise Lost. He has his own agenda, and he lives by it—like every villain.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

“So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear.
Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good.”