Thursday, July 9, 2020

Pardon My Prose by James W. Ziskin

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?

As a general rule, I believe politeness is good in society. We’re rude enough already. A little kindness wouldn’t hurt.

On social media, for example, I don’t insult people with opposing views. I block them. There’s one major exception. I’ll call bullshit on racism and misogyny, then block them from my life. Not that I worry such people will be offended. It’s just that I can’t engage with that kind of ignorance and hatred.

That’s online. What about in my writing? It’s a totally different situation. I write fiction, so I can push the limits more in my books and stories than I would in real life. Call it creative license or whatever you like. I can write hateful characters saying awful things. I can kill off characters, and readers usually give me—and other writers—a pass. That kind of thing goes with the territory in crime fiction.

But this week’s question is if we’ve ever edited ourselves for fear offending someone. And my answer is, of course. Many, many times.

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series set in the early 1960s. My protagonist is a young woman newspaper reporter. Given the setting and the historic prejudices of that time, I feel bound to include attitudes and realities that should seem backward, political incorrect, or just plain wrong today. I say should because we’re constantly learning that outdated ideas still flourish in too many minds. Among those are racism and sexism. I’ve tried to tackle many of those issues in my Ellie Stone books, tying them to her time, but also making them relevant to our world of today whenever possible. And that can produce offense in my readers.

From the start of the series, I was committed to making Ellie a “modern girl,” one who drinks, smokes, and sometimes falls into bed with an eligible man. Some readers don’t like that, and that’s fair. That’s what makes a horse race. I chose to risk losing readers who felt that way, not out of disrespect, but because these are my books and I write the kind of things I’d like to read.

Through seven books, I’ve also applied the brakes many times in order not to offend. Even if the examples of dialogue or behavior were realistic and right for the time period, I left them out. Here are a few examples:

1. No sex on the page. While my protagonist is sexually active, we never see explicit descriptions of her assignations on the page. No painful euphemisms or—perhaps worse—clinical terminology of coitus, fornication, or lovemaking. It’s something I don’t feel comfortable writing. In fact, where sex in writing is concerned, I always advise writers to remember that their mother will read their books.

2. Racial epithets. There are some in my books because I have some unsavory characters acting out their prejudices. But Ellie’s narrative style is, at times, somewhat precious. On many occasions, she’ll describe someone’s foul language with the caveat, “He used a word I don’t favor.” And, though I have put some racist and antiSemitic words into the mouths of my characters, I have avoided the worst of them for fear of offending. And Ellie always cuts the bigots down to size with her wicked wit. Always.

3. Outdated usage, both innocuous and offensive. Words go in and out of style. Usage is in constantly evolving, so I try to be aware of which expressions were in currency at the time my books and stories are set. Some of those words can offend, while others may be anachronisms that break the believability of the story.

In my latest mystery, Turn to Stone, Ellie is in Florence, Italy, in 1963. She describes a scene in Piazza della Signoria. A group of tourists enter the piazza, following their tour guide, whom she originally described as “oriental.” My editors, and some beta readers, pointed out that while this was an acceptable term for Asians in the early 1960s, it no longer is. I knew that, of course, but was striving to paint the era through the language. Then I realized I could win the battle but lose the war. What if that word offended readers? Was it really worth it? I decided that the descriptor was unnecessary and removed it.

Another, less-volatile blunder I avoided was in my Sherlock Holmes short story, “The Twenty-five-year Engagement,” which will appear in an anthology edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King in December 2020 (In League with Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon). My story is set in 1883 London. I worked hard to ensure the language was appropriate for the time. I checked every word against the Holmes concordance. If the word appeared there, it was good for my story, too. I also used Google’s Ngram Viewer to search for words and expressions in printed books over the past 200 years. Sometimes the word I was searching was a indeed in use at that time. But I needed to know where. Was it in use in England? One example that I caught by searching with Ngram Viewer was the verb “to soldier on.” I had assumed it was fine for my story, until I discovered it was indeed in use at the time and for decades before. But in American usage, not British. It didn’t catch on in the UK until the early twentieth century. Of course there were the red herrings. “Soldier on” indeed appeared in many British books in the nineteenth century—e.g. “soldier on leave”—but not in the sense of “to persevere.”

I removed the verb “to soldier on” from my story in the interests of historical accuracy and the fear that I would offend purists who cringe at such sloppiness.

4. Tone. In my current work-in-progress, Monsoon Chase, set in India in 1975—I have softened, replaced, and even eliminated completely dialogue and descriptions that might come across as overly imperialistic/xeonophobic/insensitive today. An excellent example Of how I softened the tone, is when my main character, a young American journalist living and working in India, struggles with the terms “servant” and “office boy” used by Indians. Most middle-class and upper-class Indian households employ help, which they refer to even today as “servants.” To name them otherwise in my book would be jarring to anyone who’s ever spent time in India. But I recognized the perils of using this term, so I made my character extremely uncomfortable with it. On several occasions he mentions how conflicted he feels using it. But, in the interests of realism and practicality, he does indeed use it himself. He has similar feelings for the term “office boy.”

I faced a similar “tone” problem in Cast the First Stone, which dealt with homophobia and discrimination in Hollywood in 1962. Which words should Ellie use to describe gays? Those in use at the time, or today’s versions? And the slurs uttered by bigoted characters? She can only use the-word-I-don’t-favor excuse so many times. My editor and I came up with an imperfect strategy for that situation. Ellie uses quotation marks for the offensive terms to indicate they are not her words. I believe the narrative rings truer with some level of ugliness in speech, but I was well aware of the potential to offend readers.

As for the “acceptable” terms used in the LGBTQ+ communities in the early sixties—and of course that designation did not exist at the time—I based my usage on a fascinating little book entitled Gay Bar. Written in the 1950s by the owner of a Los Angeles gay bar, it provided invaluable insights into the language usage of the time.

So, the short answer to this week’s question is, yes, I do sometimes worry about offending readers. I try to strike a balance between realism and politeness. I’m sure I’ve failed many times, and I always try to do better.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Crossing the line

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?

by Dietrich

I sometimes think yes, what I’ve written could be seen as crossing a line, and it might offend somebody. But, at the same time, I’m writing crime fiction, and the characters who live between the covers are often unlawful and marginal, and in order to be true and believable they need to be untethered and allowed to do what they do. They steal and kill and do horrible things. The truth comes in allowing the characters to be authentic in dialogue and action. And to temper that would not sound or come off as believable.

“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

Good writing has to be about impact, and any author wants their writing to be powerful and memorable. It doesn’t mean the writing needs to be offensive to accomplish that end, but a character’s words and feelings can’t be softened or watered down. The words have to be bold and honest to hold the reader, and the impact I’m concerned with is to have a book that will keep the reader turning its pages. And if the language comes off too strong for some, I accept what I’ve written isn’t going to be for everyone. I just have to write the book that I’d want to read myself; in other words I have do the best I can. And that’s what keeps me interested from page one of the first draft to that final edit.

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” ― Salman Rushdie

The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” ~ Tennessee Williams

I sometimes cut things from a story, but not for fear of offending someone. I’m more concerned about boring somebody. Too many details or scenes that don’t move the story generally do the trick. When I’m researching I often find these great nuggets I want to work into the story, but in the end a lot of them have to be cut so that the overall pace doesn’t get bogged by interesting facts. So, there’s this balance to the whole thing, and by the time I’m done writing and editing, I want to end up with a book that will be sharp and engaging, allowing the reader to enjoy the ride. And what writer could want more than that?

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Mea Culpa

This week we are writing about craft, in particular about telling the truth: Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”
Should I, as an author be concerned about the impact of my stories on the reader? Is there a point where I believe that truthful is too truthful? Have I ever cut something from my book for fear of offending somebody?

What a timely topic. This morning I received an email from a fan who thought I mishandled an incident in which a Black man who is a character in almost all my Samuel Craddock books, Truly Bennett, is treated in an insensitive way. And she was right. He gets badly injured and is taken to the hospital. Although Craddock takes the attack seriously, I never again showed anything about the consequences of the attack on Bennett. Craddock is solely focused on the travails of his white neighbor, and never checks  back to see how Bennett is faring. My fan did not write an angry letter, she simply pointed out the insensitivity of not having Craddock worry about Bennett after he takes him to the hospital.

I went back and looked at the passage and she was right. It was obvious that I was focused totally on the white characters and never thought any more about what happened to the Black man who was injured while doing a job for Craddock--protecting horses.

So I have to answer that yes, an author should be concerned about the impact of stories on the reader. This incident is a small corner of a much larger book, but it would have taken only a sentence or two to have Craddock show continued concern for the injured man—and to satisfy my reader who was painfully aware of the lack of care about him. So when I say the impact of stories, I’m talking about not just the main story, but the minor stories that make up the whole of the book.

Here's the book:

I’m talking about assumptions here. The deeper assumption is that my readership will mostly be White people and that the man’s injury will not concern them. I can’t say I ever picture my readers or think of who is reading my books. But in that vague background of assumptions is that what I care about is what readers will care about. In this particular book, Craddock does focus on finding the perpetrator of the attack, but not on the victim’s pain. My assumption was that Craddock’s concern about justice is enough. What I failed to explore further was the humanity of the situation. The humanity of the Black character.

Now I don’t think writers should beat themselves up for every little slip, but we also need to learn as we grow as writers. And to answer the rest of the question, no I don’t there is such a thing as “too truthful.” I have never, and can’t imagine, cutting something from my books for fear of offending someone. But I think the “truth” has to be the whole truth, and not just the convenient parts. In another of my books, a major character is unexpectedly racist. I thought hard about whether to include that. I didn’t have to include it, except for one thing: that’s who the character was. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a writer if I had consciously demurred on the truth of her character. A Black friend groaned when I told her that would be in the book, but she said of course I had to include it. That was reality.

The greater question might be, do we have to depict reality? My answer is a resounding yes. That doesn’t mean that things we write have to be things that actually happened. It means we have to try to reach the truth at the heart of our books. Beauty. Ugliness. Sadness. Happiness. All the in-betweens. We have to try to get at the range of human experience. If that means we have to step out of polite society, so be it.

The odd thing is that this is the only book I've published that got a bad review from a critic. He said he could not believe that something like that could actually happen to a woman. And, in fact, it's based in truth. And many women told me that they believed it and understood it wholeheartedly. Which illustrates that blindness to reality can be everywhere. It's our job as writers to throw a light in those dark corners where disbelief lives.

To go back to my original paragraph, in a way my transgression in being careless about what happened to Truly Bennett was a true depiction of the way our society has treated people of color—as useful characters in white lives, but whose humanity has been given short shrift. I hope we can do better. I hope I can do better. As a writer, I think it’s incumbent upon me to not be careless, and  to push for the greater truth.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Telling It Like It Is?

Stephen King says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” Should an author be concerned about the impact of their stories on the reader? Is there a point where you believe that truthful is too truthful? Have you ever cut something from your book for fear of offending somebody?

Brenda Chapman here.

This question is not as easy to answer as one might think and I'm keen to hear what my fellow bloggers write on this topic as this week progresses.

The first thing that comes to mind is that my daughters would say I'm waaaay too truthful when it comes to writing sex scenes although I believe these to be quite restrained passages, only hinting at what's taking place. Still, I've received several surprised comments from friends who can't believe I wrote as much as I did. Some even appear to look at me differently ...

This leads to a hurdle that all authors need to get past at some point: setting aside the reader in your mind and writing freely without worrying how the scenes or language will be received. I'll admit to toning down some scenes, both sex and murder descriptions, but not because of the impact on people I know or have yet to meet, but rather because no more was needed. I don't like a lot of graphic violence as a reader, preferring to let my imagination fill in the blanks, and tend to write in the same fashion. Still, I know I've shocked some people with my crime scenes.

Early on in my writing, my friend and author Alex Brett would critique early drafts of my manuscripts. She always gave incisive and honest feedback, which I appreciated and incorporated into my rewrites. The one piece of advice that she said to me that made the most impact was: "If you ever let yourself go and write without self-censure, you're going to be even more wonderful."

Since then, I've striven to let go and write as if nobody is reading :-) I tuck away the thought of anyone reading my work and attempt to write honestly and just let the ideas flow. Once the book is published, there might be a few times I cringe thinking about who's reading some of the passages, but I'm quick to shrug this off too. I suppose it's like having your mother go through your diary ... what kid wants that?

 Another way to look at this week's question is should we write honestly about friends and family if we have characters based on them or if we're writing stories about our own lives? For me, there is no equivocation  I won't be writing a true, tell-all book about anybody in my life and I avoid writing anything that would embarrass or hurt someone I know. I pretty much have the same code for people I don't know as well, so you won't find me saying nasty things on Twitter, for example. (And there have been times I've had to back away from the computer.)

Whenever I've included someone in my true stories or articles, I run past them what I've written if there's a chance it could be offensive and revise if necessary. For instance, I wrote a short story entitled "My Sister Caroline" that was published in the anthology When Boomers Go Bad. In this story, the narrator kills off her sister by pushing her off a cliff. I ran the piece past my own sister before it went to print on the off-chance she read it and thought I was working out some unresolved childhood resentment (which I was not). Happily, she took no offence at all and I didn't change a word. 


I will admit to using bits and pieces of real people or events that have happened in some of my fictional characters and story lines but disguised enough so that nobody takes offence. A few times, my friends have cottoned on. For instance, my brother realized that a family and story line in one of my kids' mysteries were based on an actual event that took place in our home town although I changed a lot of the details. Luckily, nobody else (up until now) made the connection since it was a rather horrible crime.

While I was writing Cold Mourning, we had a serial killer named Russell Williams on the loose and then captured in Ottawa. In fact, he and his wife moved into our neighborhood a month or two before he was caught. He was in command of an armed forces base not far from Kingston and did not fit the serial killer profile. What finally did he in were the unique tire tracks on his vehicle which matched those found outside one of the homes of his victims. (I digress.) Anyhow, the story dominated the news for weeks and I was so disturbed by him that he became a character (altered and fictional) in the book that many have since recognized. I don't feel any remorse if I've somehow offended him.

As for cutting something from a book for fear of causing offence, I can't say that I consciously do this, but I do have an example. I set my Stonechild and Rouleau series in Kingston, Ontario and often use real restaurants and locations. One of my books was about to go to print and I'd used the name of a real hotel as the place for a crime. I'm not sure if other writers do this, but sometimes I'll use a name as more of a placeholder and by the end of the manuscript it's become part of the story. Anyway, none of the editors questioned this name choice but I had a niggling doubt and raised my concern as they were finalizing the manuscript for the printers. We quickly agreed it would be wise to make up a hotel name rather than risk being sued. Sometimes preventing offence is the better part of valour.


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Friday, July 3, 2020

Sympathy for the Devil

Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

by Paul D. Marks

...get rid of my flaws and there would be no one left.
                                                           ―Sarah Vowell, Take the Cannoli

No. Definitely not. But if you want readers to go along with you they should probably have at least some redeeming qualities. The anti-heroes in many film noirs aren’t good guys, but they have something that puts us on their side anyway. Nor do I think genre makes a difference.

I haven’t read any of the Save the Cat books about storytelling and writing, but I gather that the point of “saving the cat” is to show the reader or viewer a good quality in the character so they’ll root for that character on some level.

Curley and Moe, a couple of cats we actually did save
So let me talk about the people (characters) I know best, the ones I’ve created. Many of my characters are flawed one way or another. Some of them with major flaws like racism, others with everyday flaws like vanity or envy. I think we’re long past the days where the good guys wear white hats, don’t cuss, don’t smoke and don’t throw people off the tops of buildings. And if you look at the examples below I think you’ll see that I’m not “uncomfortable” with much in terms of flaws. Not because I like these traits, but because I think they’re real. And if I want my characters to ring true they have to have real flaws because no one is perfect.

Philip Marlowe, the quintessential knight errant private eye, was misogynistic, racist and more, just as a matter of course. But he was also a product of his times. We notice it today when we read Chandler, but I’m sure many people reading those stories when they first came out wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Nor do I think Chandler would have given it a second thought or consciously put it in his stories. It was just the zeitgeist of the times (if I’m not being redundant). But today, when most of us write characters with these traits we are doing it on purpose to make a point of one kind or another and to round out the character.

In my just-released book The Blues Don’t Care, most of the characters are flawed or less than sympathetic to one degree or another. The main character, Bobby Saxon, is flawed. His goal in life is to play piano with the Booker Taylor band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in L.A. during World War II. He’s got one obvious major problem to achieving that goal: if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. But he’s on a mission. So when Booker offers him a shot with the band…if Bobby will help find the real murderer that James, a band member, is accused of, does Bobby go for it? For selfish reasons? To help the band? To clear an innocent man? Or just to get the gig he’s pining for? All of the above?

Bobby also has other issues to deal with and is a pretty complex character, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. Is he sympathetic? In some ways, he is. He’s also a little selfish. But mostly he’s a young, wet behind the ears guy trying to figure out how to be a man in the world of the World War II home front.

Sam Wilde is someone Bobby comes across in his quest to find the murderer. Wilde is a tough, rough around the edges man who, especially at first, is antagonistic towards Bobby both verbally and physically. But as they get to know each other they both see each other beyond initial impressions.
Bobby also crosses paths with Sgt. Nicolai, of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department. Nicolai is also rough around the edges. And he’s corrupt, on the take. He’s given up on the system. He doesn’t believe James is guilty, but the word’s come down from the brass: James is going down for it. So Nicolai’s faith in the system is gone. He’s tired and cynical. He drinks. But he still has a little of the idealism left that brought him to join the force and when Bobby taps into that Nicolai helps Bobby with the case.

Both Wilde and Nicolai have the prejudices of their era, sexist, racist and homophobic, but in the end Bobby appeals to their better angels. The question is who wins, the better angels or the darker ones?

The two main characters in my novels White Heat and Broken Windows are both seriously flawed. Duke, the P.I. main character, is a screw-up in more ways than one, only that’s not the word he uses to describe himself. His partner, Jack, is majorly flawed. He’s a racist—at least on the surface. He says things that maybe other people only think. But a lot of them do think those things. If you only listened to Jack talk you’d think he was a really bad guy, but if you watch his actions, you see that it’s not that simple. Jack is also a good guy. He may say the wrong thing, but he pretty much does the right thing. In Jack’s case actions definitely speak louder than words.

White Heat takes place in and around the 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles. And, though it’s a mystery, it deals with many racial issues and concerns—which are still relevant today. So the book is sort of a prism on today, though set in the not-too-distant past. I was so concerned by the raw nature of some of it that I put an author’s note in the beginning of the book. I put the disclaimer in, but I also left in the raw language and actions of the characters. But I was still nervous about how people would react. Luckily the reaction was pretty positive on all fronts and the book ended up winning a Shamus award.

I also see Jack as the little devil on Duke’s shoulder, like you would see in the old cartoons. Jack is sort of Duke’s alter ego, the bad side of Duke, the nature he must fight. And he does. But why, one might wonder, would Duke even be friends with Jack? Because, besides their personal history, Duke sees beyond Jack’s posturing to the real Jack underneath and maybe that person isn’t quite what the surface person comes off as. We all say things we regret, and sometimes do things we regret. Jack pretty much does the right thing, even if he spouts off the wrong thing. And ultimately we are all flawed and can relate to the flaws in others. It makes the characters more human, more accessible. And more real.

In Vortex, Zach Tanner is on the run—mostly from himself, from his past. In that past he might not have been the most upstanding citizen or the most squared away soldier. He did some bad stuff. But recuperating from wounds received in Afghanistan he has an epiphany about his life and realizes the error of his ways. So when he returns home he wants to go straight. The problem is some of his cohorts in crime don’t want to let him, especially because they think he has something they’re entitled to. So, in a sense it’s a story of Zach’s redemption, but the road to redemption is paved with figurative IEDs and landmines (and real guns) that Zach must circumvent if he wants to come out on the other side.
The main character—a cop—in 51-50, a story first published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories—Psycho Noir edition (so the edition title alone might tell you something about the character), and now in my LA Late @ Night story collection, shoots a gang banger out of sheer frustration, not because of a life-threatening situation. The cop is unraveling throughout the story, the pressures of life on the street are too much for him to deal with anymore. The story was written and published some years ago, but again is relevant in light of what’s been happening in the country today. The cop is not a bad guy. He wants to do the right thing. But dealing with the stress of the streets and the thugs he has to deal with just wears him down.

Ray Hood in Dead Man’s Curve (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is an aging rocker, his glory days as a road guitarist for Jan and Dean are long behind him. He’s selfish, he does bath salts (not the kind you put in the tub), he doesn’t appreciate what his sister is trying to do for him. Definitely not a model of perfection. And he wants to get back in the game. To that end he will do just about anything.

In Poison Heart (Deadly Ink 2010 anthology), Winger is a crime beat photographer, who can’t adjust to the modern world and has become jaded by all the violence he sees in the real world. So he decides to take things a step further and goes way beyond the bounds of the law to get a good pic, selling his soul (so to speak) in the process. Another desperate character who will do desperate things to stay on top and be a modern-day Weegee. Again, his flaws are the petty flaws we all have, but he takes them to another level. A more personal level of envy and the desire to be on top and what he’s willing to do to be there.

Howling at the Moon (November 2014, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine): This one’s a little different in that the character is not a bad person. Not selfish or suffering from envy or any of the other seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride  But he is disaffected and has separated himself from his American Indian roots, especially after coming home from the war in Iraq. He ultimately does something we might think is immoral, but we empathize with him and understand why he does it. Nonetheless, he becomes a flawed person by the actions that he takes.

Most of my characters are flawed because people are flawed. I don’t necessarily set out to write a character with this or that flaw, but the character comes to life in the writing and develops those flaws, just as people do as they go through life. Ultimately, I think the reason most of us like flawed protagonists is that we can relate to them more.  They are more like us. Not perfect, not saints, more like real people, just trying to get by in a flawed world.


And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care is getting some great reviews:

"It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series --- mysteries that not only have the requisite twists, turns, surprises and reveals, but also offer a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws: greed, corruption, fear of the “other” and, especially, racism."
—Jack Kramer,

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, July 2, 2020

On Muppets and Munters, by Catriona

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

Frank made a good point yesterday - about the hero of a romance needing to be attractive to the reader - and Susan did the same on Monday - regarding heroes and villains both being more attractive to a reader of thrillers if they've got some light and shade. A moustache-twirling rotter and a suave Superman are hard to care about throughout a book. 

(I'm writing on Tuesday, by the way. It's not that Cathy spoke drivel yesterday!) 

Inside the mystery genre, in particular in the cozy sub-genre, I think the likability (shouldn't that have an "e"?) of the victim is just as important. I wish I could remember who defined cozies as books where someone gets killed but no one gets hurt. That bangs the nail on the head and explains why a cozy murder victim, can't be too likable. We're not expecting to plunged into doom at the death. 

I went too far the other way in a recent book - STRANGERS AT THE GATE - and made up a woman who was (I think) one of the best characters I've written in years, then killed her in chapter two. I spent the rest of the book missing her and stopped halfway to see if maybe the story would work if she survived. It wouldn't, but I did make other characters remember her a lot.

Another lively sub-genre where likability comes up a whole lot is the one I call "Where's She Off To Now" (because of the women walking away on the jacket (see above). Note: I'm not disparaging these books. I've been writing one a year for nine years (see above again) and I devour other people's by the armload. Famous examples of the sub-genre - GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN - were widely slammed for having unlikable heroines, but I found both Amy and Rachel instantly appealing. I like fictional people who're a bit rubbish - mardy, hammered disasters with disintegrating lives. Especially if they're funny. 

As my darling agent, Lisa, has pointed out more than once, I do tend to make my Where's She Off To Now heroines fall in with heroes who're . . . not conventionally . . . what we would call . . . Put it this way: acid sweat, missing teeth and offensive tattoos have featured. I have no idea why this is. My husband, Neil, wants me to make it clear that it's not autobiographical. 

I've just suggested, in a wifely way, that if he wants that story to get about he need to stop grimacing in photos and try to look a bit less of a muppet. But I found a candid shot that shows what he actually looks, so we're good. (Locked down together for fifteen weeks now. It's going really well.)

But anyway, when Lisa was evaluating my manuscript of QUIET NEIGHBORS and read that a particular man had long, grey teeth like tombstones and never washed his jumpers, she knew wedding bells were set to ring. 

I'm going to finish off with some examples of characters who're awful but don't spoil the books they appear in, for me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this lot. 

  • Win, Myron's friend, in the Harlan Coben sports agent series. He's a straight-up sociopath. Dreadful man. Great character. 
  • Catherine, Roxanne's girlfriend, in Kristen Lepionka's PI series. Boo! Hiss! She's a terrible girlfriend and not much of a person otherwise. But I hope she never leaves town.
  • Hercule Poirot. I'm sorry. I'm perfectly willing to leave MWA, CWA, SinC, ITW, and turn in my Tesco Clubcard if I have to but I'm not backing down. I can't stick the fella. Miss Marple could crush him like a grape for nuance, likability, and tantalisingly absent back story.  My writing dream, in fact, is to be allowed to write a Jane Marple prequel set in the Edwardian England of her youth.  Never likely to happen, and I apologise for the faint air of prosperity gospel, but I'm just putting it out there. 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tea and sympathy? Not for me... by Cathy Ace

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

The 9th Cait Morgan Mystery was published on June 29th, so this is my first chance – here – to shout about it. If you follow me in other ways maybe, by now, you’ve grown a bit tired of seeing reviews, blog posts, interviews and profiles of the book, myself, and my characters. I hope not. But it’s a difficult balancing job…trying to make sure as many people know about a new book as possible, trying to get as many people to like the idea of reading it as possible – but not annoying the heck out of folks along the way. So, if this post is turning out to be a bit of a stressor, let me say this, and be done with it: The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is a book I am proud of, and I hope you consider buying it. If you’d like to find out more about it CLICK HERE. Thank you.

Now then…if you’re still here…let’s talk characters. This week’s question is interesting and it’s one I’ve faced on panels at conventions. The thing is, if you’ve read any of my work I think you already know my answer: no, I don’t think characters need to be sympathetic…not all of them, and not all of the time. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be, on occasion.

Why do I think they shouldn’t be sympathetic all the time? Well, who do you know in real life who’s sympathetic all the time? You might know the odd person whose life is so dreadful that you feel constantly sorry for them…but maybe even those people have a keen wit, or you know their life isn’t blighted for no reason – rather, they have become a victim of their choices.

Here I am...asking you to "choose the Ace"!!

While I write fiction, I want my readers to be able to relate to the characters I create, rather than always be fighting their battles for them. That’s not to say I haven’t written characters I believe should be sympathized with by readers, for at least a part of their time in my works, but one of the things I try to highlight in anything I write is that we are the product of our choices – and we all make some good choices, and some poor choices. Sometimes a character's arc is born not from the bad or good choices they have made prior to the start of the book, or even within it, but from how they deal with the implications of those choices.

Is the desire to own buried treasure a "good enough" reason to kill someone?

“I had no choice” is often the bleating excuse of a fictional criminal – my job as a storyteller is to allow the reader to understand why ALL the characters in the book have acted as they have, and to especially understand why the killer/s chose to do what they did, and the way they did it. That’s not to give the killer an excuse – but a motivation. I also try to highlight the concept that having a reason to want someone dead isn’t the same as killing them – because, especially in my traditional Cait Morgan Mysteries, there are usually quite a few suspects who all had a reason to want the victim/s dead, but didn’t follow through and actually kill them. Cait Morgan herself is quite clear that her life is a product of the choices she’s made – and is equally clear she’s made some terrible ones in her past. In her adventures a part of her motivation to always seek the truth, and thereby justice, is a search for redemption within her “new life”.

For me, I aim for relatable rather than sympathetic. Different authors in different genres treat this challenge differently, and I know they have their reasons. I’ll stick to mine.

You can find out more about all my books - and me - by CLICKING HERE.


PS: please consider trying the new Cait Morgan Mystery? Oops…I couldn’t resist that one, final request. I hope you understand 😊

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Should You Care?

Craft: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

From Frank

Short answer?

No, they do not have to be sympathetic. But they have to at least be someone the reader can understand.

Longer answer?

My speciality.

If you make a character sympathetic, that's the easiest path. And it may be the one that pays off the most for the reader, I believe. It's a great approach, and I think one that most of us strive to achieve. But there are degrees, right?

Full sympathy would be like the golden ticket. If a reader identifies with a character to that degree, you literally have their heart strings clutched in your little Machiavellian fingers. Tug away.

Most of the time, we get some sympathy. Just like real people, we may not like everything about a character, but we mostly like that character. And you can get a lot of mileage out of that, believe me.

But all it really takes is one or two connections between reader and character to make something meaningful happen, to keep their interest, and make them care.

But what if they don't like anything about the character, but they still understand where she is coming from? I contend that's still enough. It's a harder row to hoe, but it's enough to keep a reader hooked.

Does genre matter? I think so. I think romance has some pretty specific expectations in a narrator and a romantic lead, for example. But mystery seems a little more forgiving of characters who are more gray.

That's my answer.

There's a similar question to comes to mind, though. What if the character is someone you think you'd hate in real life (or at least find annoying) but you love the character on the page? This seems to be the reaction of many readers when it comes to the character of Detective Wardell Clint of the Charlie-316 series that I write with Colin Conway. I mean, people love Wardell Clint. They've told me this in person, on social media, and in private correspondence. But then they usually go on to admit that they probably wouldn't like him much in real life.

That's undoubtedbly true. Clint is brusque and appears arrogant to most people. He has a strong defiance to authority and a paranoid and unhealthy belief in multiple conspiracies. From the outside, he's mostly unlikable. But the reader gets the benefit of his own point-of-view chapters, so s/he sees inside his mind and person, which makes him far more likable. Probably puts him into that 'one or two connection' category, or at least into the 'understandable' range.

I also think there's some fantasy projection occurring with this character. He is secure in who he is (and he's good what he does), and he speaks his mind without compunction. Most of us couch our interactions for the sake of civility, and I'm guessing most of us would like to be more like Clint if we could.

Anyway, that's just a side note, probably included because the second book in this series just came out about a week ago. It's called Never the Crime. Books three and four will follow in September and November of 2020, so for Clint lovers out there, you're going to get your fill!

But if you're looking for characters who fall into that golden ticket category, you're going to have a rough go of it. The color of this series is gray, not gold.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Othello, Iago, and the complexity of character

Q: Do characters need to be sympathetic? Why? Why not? Does it make a difference in different genres?

-from Susan

I sure hope not. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment? Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s crime novels? Sometimes the lead character is also the villain and we have to like him or her in order to finish the book - a neat trick. I just read a book I think is very good in which I disliked the protagonist from page one – and he wasn’t the villain!

But I'm choosing to focus on villains. Of course the villains in crime fiction don’t need to be too sympathetic, although a nuanced bad hat is more interesting and more the fashion than it was in Agatha Christie’s day. We are voyeurs looking at these fictional crimes, and we’re curious about the whys as much as the hows. And if the whys are more about character than plot, it can draw us in deeper to the story and its outcome. 

I recently watched a terrific TV short series, “The Victim” in which we’re not sure who the victim is and who the villain is. In fact, they are both victims and villains and I had sympathy for them both. (Highly recommended – I saw it on Britbox, not sure if it’s available elsewhere.)

I never much liked the 007 books (only read one) or movies (saw two) because all the characters were so cartoonish. The bad guys in particular. But I didn't much like Bond and had a tough time rooting for him.

I’m old enough to remember early TV shows with the Lone Ranger and Tonto (groan) and the villains might as well have had “I am the bad guy” stamped on their cowboy hats. The two main characters were sympathetic in a way that matched the 1950s culture. Today, Tonto would get his own show!

If you watch crime series, especially American-made ones, I guarantee the nice guy with the weak chin, the sexy woman with thin lips, the middle aged rich business man, they have “I am the villain” stamped on their foreheads from the first scene. Too many crime novels do the same thing with words. 

Then, there's Snidely Whiplash...

Villains in other genres and media have to satisfy their readers and viewers. Sometimes in terribly trendy novels, there is no villain, only the endlessly self-absorbed protagonist whom I might want to strangle by the end of the book. But what do I know? Truth is, all characters, if they're good, reflect the truth that we incorporate a range of characteristics that can show as sympathetic one moment and off-putting the next. It's what makes us human and makes our fiction worth reading.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Read All About It

How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?

By Abir


Happy Friday everyone! I’m in a good mood this week. I sent off the first draft of my new book to my editor a few days ago and while it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast, I’m sure she’ll come up with ways of making it better. She is, after all, a miracle worker.


Right! So on to today’s topic. How do I decide what to read?


My reading decisions can be summed up under the following headings:


1.     Crusty old coot afraid of change

2.     Nerd Alert!

3.     Aww do I have to? Yes, we’re paying you.

4.     Oooh, nice cover!

5.     Man, moral obligation.

6.     Ok, shut up already, I’ll read it.

7.     Just me, jumpin’ on the ole bandwagon


The above are in no particular order, other than the order in which they popped into my head. I could rearrange them into something more meaningful, but I feel it’s important that we have  some secrets.


Number 1: Crusty old coot afraid of change


I’m only forty six. That’s no age at all. I still have half my life to look forward to, assuming my wife doesn't poison me for the life insurance (If I die under mysterious circumstances, I want you to bring this article to the attention of the police, ok?), but the thing is, these day’s I’ve become a bit of a crusty old fart.



This is basically me.


I’m like old grandpa Simpson. I love authors that are familiar to me. So any time, Ian Rankin, or Val McDermid or Ann Cleeves or Martin Cruz Smith or one of a dozen authors releases a book, even if it's just Inspector Arkady Renko investigating the intricacies of the Russian tax system, I’m there at the front of the queue throwing my cash at it.




Number 2: Nerd Alert!


There are certain things I will be drawn to like the Starship Enterprise caught in the gravity well of a black hole. This includes a lot of Star Trek Fan fiction, much of which is pretty dire, but some of which is really really good! I’ll still read the dire stuff, because Star Trek.



I Khannn't keep reading books like this!!



Also under Nerd Alert comes a lot of non-fiction, firstly, the Brain Bursting Science books. I love anything to do with quantum physics, especially if it’s been dumbed down to the level of a six year old. Even if it's more complicated, I will buy a book by the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking, read the first seventeen pages, at which point the maths and the physics gets too complicated and my brain melts. But I’ll keep reading for another forty odd pages, basking in the glow of Professor Hawking’s intellect and feeling smug that I’m still reading words but understanding nothing.



Third sub-category of Nerd – the History Books. I love history. I will literally pick up any history book I can, the more obscure the subject matter, the better. This enables me to be the life and soul of dinner parties, keeping everyone riveted by my discourse on subjects as diverse and vital as the Classical Greek period, and the Chaco War of 1932 to 1935 between Bolivia and Paraguay. (Spoiler: Paraguay won on penalties).


Number 3: Aww do I have to? Yes, we’re paying you.


Right so I’ve been lucky to judge a number of literary prizes over the years, and this entails reading a lot of books, many of which are about as far from my comfort zone as you can get. I once had to read a book written entirely from the point of view of a swan. It was actually pretty decent, but it has left me with an innate hatred of Canada geese, the sworn enemy of the magnificent swan.

This guy is not just a majestic bird but a fabulous writer and a bloody nice chap too.


The point is, these competitions have forced me to read lots of stuff I would have simply walked by in a bookshop, and quite often the books have been great, and they’ve broadened my horizons.



Number 4: Oooh, Nice Cover!


I know. I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s a bit shallow and there’s even a damn proverb warning against it, but on many occasions, I have bought a book because of the cover. I’m a sucker for any cover which has a pop art feel to it, or a comic book vibe. I think this may be due to deep seated Tintin related psychological issues buried in my childhood. (On a side note, As I get older, I begin to realise what a racist and tin-pot fascist Tintin really was. Way to go, Hergé. Thanks for ruining everything.)



Tintin in the Congo – So racist, they didn’t even publish it in English when I was a kid.

Number 5: Moral Obligation


Here’s the thing about being an author. You send your books out to other authors to read and hopefully they’ll like it and give you a nice quote, and similarly all the other authors are sending you books, hoping for the same thing. The problem is the average author receives fourteen thousand such books a month and is only able to read at a fourth grade level. This means we need to be selective in what we read and what we blurb about, otherwise the whole of an author’s existence would be taken up by reading books that are sent to them with little notes from publicists saying things like 'this debut set in the cut-throat world of focaccia-baking is the best thing since sliced bread!'.


‘So Abir,’ you’re no doubt asking, ‘how does a writer of your astounding mediocrity and limited reading ability decide which such books to read?’ To which my answer would be, ‘Thank you for asking, and simple, I read those books by authors to whom I’m most indebted to. So if an author has been kind enough to read my work and give me a quote, they’ll go straight to the top of the pile; if an author is someone I know personally and like, they’ll also go up near the top; and if an author is someone I owe money too, I shall definitely read their book and praise it to the stars on the understanding that certain financial obligations could be forgotten about. 


Number 6: Okay, shut up already. I’ll read it!


There are a number of people whose opinions I trust when it comes to book recommendations, and if they nag me for long enough, I’ll always go out and buy the book they’re banging on about. People in this group include, but are not limited to:


-        My agent. He will say something like, ‘You should really read that. It’s brilliant. If you wrote something like that, I could definitely get you six figures.’ I think it’s all mind games to make me feel bad.

-       The other members of my podcast group, The Red Hot Chilli Writers. They are all British Asian Writers and they’re all brilliant. If one of them recommends a book, I’ll probably tell them I read it.


One person whose recommendations I will NEVER follow though is my wife. She has no business reading other peoples’ books in the first place. Having the gall to then recommend them to me just feels like a betrayal.


Number 7: Jumpin’ on the Bandwagon


You know how there are some books which everyone tells you are brilliant, the whole world loves, and you’re like, ‘no, I’m not going to read it. It’s overhyped and will probably leave me feeling broken and empty inside once I’ve finished it’, but then, after it’s been top of the charts everywhere from Afghanistan to Zambia, you decide, ‘Well, I might just see what all the fuss is about,’ and then you buy it, and The Silent Patient is absolutely bloody amazing, and you think, ‘why didn’t I buy this before?’ – That.

One of my favourite books of the last year.


So there you have it. These are the ways in which I choose books. Some people may think that this is less than optimal. Those people are wrong.


Have a good weekend everyone. And stay safe.