Saturday, November 5, 2011

How to keep dead bodies sweet

How to keep dead bodies sweet
By Gunnar

There’s a dichotomy in the very idea of a cozy mystery. See, most cozies (or any other mystery) involves solving a murder or other violent crime, and murder is a messy, ugly, grotesque affair. There’s all that blood, bodily fluids, violence, and after a while the stench—okay, okay, you get the idea. And that’s the problem: readers who like “sweet” stories don’t want all that nasty stuff, even though it’s inherent in murder. So what’s a writer to do?

Focus on the characters and the puzzle, not the crime. Readers of cozies aren’t here for the gore. They want to meet interesting characters who do interesting things, and track the clues, watch the plot unfold, as the mystery is solved. They want to match wits with the writer, hoping they’ll lose. If you have an overwhelming urge to write every detail of the murder in progress, consider trying your hand at a thriller or police procedural, where such in-depth violence is accepted and even sought.

In the same way, keep ugly descriptions discreet. Don’t spend too much time telling readers about the spray of blood, the savage injuries, or the victim’s terror. Heavy descriptions weigh down cozies, which are supposed to be lighter reading. Instead, try using suggestion when a description of violence is necessary. Here’s an example from my historical mystery, Deal with the Devil:

“Not as bad as the other.” Arnussen indicated the mush that had once been a young girl’s chest. “Not as much bruising on the face, either.”
“Still a lot of rage, though. How many times do you think he stabbed her? Twenty, thirty?”
“Something like that.”
Hackney forced himself to examine her nude body, the blood splatters on the headboard, the bruising and overkill, and implant all of it into his memory. The only thing he touched was her dark hair spilling over the pillow.

Through the imprecise nature of the detectives’ dialogue, the reader gets the impression of a brutal crime scene, without having to endure the details. Even though Deal isn’t specifically a cozy, the technique is the same.

Explore the emotions rather than the actions. In the example above, did you get the impression Sergeant Arnussen isn’t as affected by the crime scene as Detective Inspector Hackney? Well, that was my goal, at least. Arnussen’s not hard-hearted or unfeeling, by any means. But every time Hackney examines a murder victim, a little piece of his soul dies. By demonstrating his sadness, by inviting the reader to experience that emotion with him, I keep the focus on the characters rather than the crime scene.

With romances, writing “sweet” generally means keeping any sex scenes offstage. With mysteries, it’s the violence that requires discretion. Handled properly, even the grisliest murder can be turned into a cozy, by keeping the reader’s attention on the characters, the puzzle, and the emotions, rather than the ugly stuff. Such subtlety can keep the worst dead body sweet.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing a mystery series: golden arcs

Writing a mystery series: golden arcs
by Meg Mims

What does it take to write a mystery series? An eccentric detective like Sherlock Holmes? A domestic cat like Sneaky Pie (Rita Mae Brown) or a quirky dog like Chet (Spencer Quinn)? Maybe focusing on an interesting job like a coffeehouse barista, or a tea shop owner, a haunted bookshop owner, a minister’s wife, a clutter expert, a miniature house maker, knitter or a cleaning woman?

Ask Sue Grafton about writing her way through the alphabet with her PI Kinsey Milhone series (also Carole Nelson Douglas in her Midnight Louie cat series), or Janet Evanovich’s Plum by the numbers. What’s the key? Keeping a reader’s loyalty, for one thing, despite lackluster plots – but one major trick is to create a “series arc” for the amateur or professional sleuth, the featured animal who assists the hero/heroine, or for the entire cast of characters.

Take Stephanie Plum. Sure, you remember her escapades with Joe Morelli and Ranger – but readers also keep returning to learn what’s new with Grandma Mazur, Lula and her poor, suffering parents. Take Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse series which takes Clare Cosi, long post-divorce, back into her ex’s arms and then out again, flirting with the cop and then deepening their relationship. Or take Coyle’s Haunted Bookshop series, which explores a ghostly link between owner Mrs. McClure and the dead-but-not-gone detective Jack Shield.

Let’s examine the “character” arc vs. a “story” arc vs. a “series” arc. In every book, a hero or heroine should undergo a change – either learning something about themselves (besides solving the mystery, of course) or resolving an issue, or making a decision over the course of the story. The “story” arc is basically the mystery (or any genre) plot – from inciting incident to developments to twists and turns to the black moment and climax/confrontation with villain and the resolution. The “series” arc expands beyond that.

If your amateur detective has a secret past, one way to extend a series is to drop hints about it over several books before uncovering that secret. The character may not even be aware of that secret – take Kinsey Milhone. Part of her basic character is her “loner” status, yet Grafton drops hints of Kinsey’s dead parents, the aunt who raised her and then drops a bomb – she does have family after all. Cousins who drag her into their lives, and force her (indirectly) to deal with the past.

Why? Subplots deepen a story as well as round out the hero or heroine. The series avoids plodding through “the usual suspects” and storyline to give the reader a more realistic picture of the character’s life. Read S. J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series of PI mysteries for a masterful series arc. Even these two characters keep secrets from each other, due to their complicated family relationships and cultural differences, despite being partners for years.

One of the strongest ways to build a series is to choose a specific location, a la “Cabot’s Cove” in the Murder She Wrote series (just as popular with readers as with television viewers). JoAnna Carl created “Warner Pier” based on a small town in western Michigan for her Chocolate shop mystery series and explores interplay between the town residents. Charlaine Harris introduces readers to “Shakespeare” in Arkansas while Carolyn Haines explores “Zinnia” in the Mississippi Delta area. The writers mine their own experiences of living in these areas to infuse the flavor and hook readers.

Writers who are willing to invest their time, energy and loyalty to a series might find themselves weary after several books. Think Arthur Conan Doyle, who killed off Holmes and then had to resurrect him after he “died” at Reichenbach Falls! But you can’t knock reader loyalty.

It might just carry a writer all the way to the bank.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Writing a mystery series: the recurring character tease

Writing a mystery series: the recurring character tease
By Lindsay Downs

When our readers don’t have their noses buried in one of our books they might have their eyes glued to the TV. It doesn’t really matter what show they watching, most of the shows all have one thing in common. Repeating main characters.

NCIS, NCIS: Los Angles, CSI (all three cities), Rizzoli & Isles, Castle and Blue Bloods, to name just a few, all have the core actors. Isn’t that what brings the viewer back week after week? Following them week to week, watching them grow, develop?

So, why not give our readers a similar experience, the same main characters story after story. In my case - Emily and Dakota.

The whole idea is to get the reader to not only want the next book but to tell their friends, as many of us do with a TV show or movie we like. You can do this by constantly developing the lead characters.

Recently, I read the David Baldacci book Deliver Us from Evil. At the time, I didn’t realize this was the final book of a two part series. Unfortunately, for the author, not me, I learned enough about Shaw, the main character, so I didn’t need to buy the first book. Sure the information was scattered throughout the book but still, if some had been held back then a sequel would be interesting to read.

What I choose to do, and it might be wrong, is in short stories give the reader bits and pieces about my main character, Emily Dahill. In at least one case it was an experiment, as I was not sure how the reading public would accept a heroine and a collie for the heroes.

In my debut Army mystery, Emily Dahill, CID Part 1, the stories weren’t written in the order they appear in the book. The first, “A Body in the Snow,” was really the test story. Here I introduce the heroine and hero, and a periodic recurring villain a/k/a the brown-haired man. In this story I give you a little insight into her, even let you see a humorous side to her.

With “Right Place, Wrong Day” I showed a no-nonsense side of her plus my editor’s favorite scene of Dakota not misbehaving, not really acting as a dog but asserting his control over the situation, thereby giving a little insight into him.

With the third story, “Dog Gone Fishing,” I took a real gamble and told the story mostly from Dakota’s POV. I should point out this had my editor confused until she realized he was a main character. Hence, Emily and he are both on the cover.

Once I had the two main characters they still needed to meet, accomplished in “Final Mission.” I didn’t want her to wake up one day a CID special agent and I wanted my test audience to see the progress from MP to agent. This ended with her hooking up with Dakota.

As you can see, just like in TV shows, I continued to develop my characters, which is important. Don’t let them become stale. By keeping them growing and expanding you will keep your reader interested in them. And yes, even Dakota is growing and maturing.

The whole idea is to make the reader want to read more of and about them. Not just a rehash of old experiences and events.

One way to do that is to put them in difficult and or dangerous situations, as I did in “A Body in the Attic” with Emily. Make them act outside what you think the reader will expect.

Writing the series featuring these two characters allows me to carefully build them as a person would build a house, piece by piece. Each of the stories builds on others. In one story you might learn what color hair she has. Another, the length. Her eye color in a third. In “A Body in the Attic” the reader finally learns how tall she is.

This story starts out in the CID office where the reader meets the other members of her team, in name and technical skill. You learn a little about what the office looks like but I don’t bore the reader with extraneous data. As the series progress and one or more of the characters are in the office, then and only then will you get a better picture. Is this right or wrong? Truthfully, I’m not sure, but it’s the way I write, even if each of the stories was 65K or larger. I know some time I will have the characters back in the office and will give the reader more information.

In other Emily Dahill, CID stories I’ve had the opportunity to give you the reader an insight into her mindset. For example, in the YA, “Tears,” you get to see how she interacts with a bullied teenage girl.

All of this is carefully orchestrated. And that’s the advantage of writing a series especially when the stories range from 1K-23K.

However, not all characters are meant for a series and that’s fine. You have to choose what’s right for you, as I did with the Emily Dahill, CID series. To date, I’ve got something like fourteen short stories either finished or in some stage of being completed, along with story concepts for six full books.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mystery genres: part two

Mystery genres: part two

In addition to mysteries, there are several other genres considered part of the crime fiction stable, each with its own format and reader expectations.

Thrillers are page-turners. If the classic mystery can be summed up as a whodunit, then thrillers are will-they-get-away-with-it stories. Usually the reader knows who committed the crime, as well as how and why; the thrill involves pitting the good guys against the criminals in a race against the clock, with a prize at the chase’s end. The prize can vary and possibilities include money, state secrets, military hardware, gold bullion, priceless artwork, and a person’s life or freedom. The broad category of thrillers is divided by subject matter and focus: medical (Robin Cook’s Coma), legal (just about anything by John Grisham), psychological (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), political (David Baldacci’s Absolute Power), espionage (“Bond. James Bond.”) and war and the military (Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare).

Techno-thrillers, a relatively new addition to crime fiction, were invented by Tom Clancy with his ground-breaking novel The Hunt for Red October. Here the focus is equally divided between the Soviet sailors’ attempt to defect, and the technical features of the new submarine they’re taking with them. This split focus, with its analysis of a technology’s inner workings, separates techno-thrillers from more traditional war and military thrillers, which may use the same technology but refrain from discussing it. A related and often overlapping genre, near-future speculative thrillers, creates the technology and projects it a few years or decades ahead, with the writer exploring how his creation can change the world. Note that, while Clancy created the technology of the Soviet submarine, he placed his story in the near past rather than the future. Also note that the “crime” in these categories of crime fiction are generally between political entities rather than individuals.

Suspense or adventure novels focus on what happens next, as the characters attempt to survive some disruption in their previously smooth and orderly world. These novels stretch the definition of “crime” yet again — a popular category, survival after an airline crash in the wilderness, may be caused by clearly criminal elements such as terrorism or hijacking, or by pilot error or a careless mechanic neglecting to fasten down a cargo container. No matter the cause, though, the characters must cope with the disaster that follows. War, espionage, and the military are common features in these novels (Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels of the Royal Navy), as well as natural disasters (crimes by nature), such as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm.

Caper stories tell the tale of a crime, from planning through execution and the subsequent aftermath, most commonly from the perspective of the perpetrators. The true caper involves a high-stakes game, with a superbly valuable prize protected by supposedly impenetrable security, and a team of experts determined to take it down. Common but not universal features include a charismatic team leader who organizes the heist, in-depth planning and practice sessions that are often organized by numbers or rhymes, and something going horribly or comically wrong at the penultimate moment. Capers can be funny (Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder series) or serious (Ocean’s Eleven, Kelly’s Heroes), featuring professional criminals (John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) or private citizens with a grudge against a corporation or political entity (Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). They require great imagination and involve a tremendous amount of work, including in-depth plotting, from the author, but are among the most popular of all crime fiction genres.

Romantic suspense adds a kiss and some personal chemistry to the crime fiction blend. Any category of crime fiction — mystery, espionage, thriller, war, caper, even techno-thriller — can be turned into romantic suspense if the hero and heroine are making eyes at each other. They may team up to more efficiently fight criminals, the political process run amok, a corporation or organization, to survive a war or natural disaster, or to steal a priceless Rembrandt. Less commonly, they may be on opposite sides of the fence, with one a criminal and the other a detective, and one of them must change sides in the name of love. Because this is a split genre, the two plotlines, the romance and the crime fiction, must roughly balance each other in intensity and quantity. If the suspense plotline carries more weight, the ending can be questionable, but if the romance plotline is more important, then happily-ever-after must prevail.

Finally, crossovers spread the elements of crime fiction into other genres, most recently including science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and horror. A police procedural may be set in an urban world of angels, a team of vampires may plot a caper to rob a blood bank, a time-traveling amateur detective may find herself up against a werewolf Jack the Ripper. In crossovers, anything and everything can happen, but the crime still must be solved.

While some mystery writers deplore these obviously speculative concoctions, others remember that in the 1920s, the ultra-realistic police procedural originated as a backlash against the unrealistic cozy. It’s possible these spec fic crossovers are another example of new genres breaking free, giving rise to new story opportunities for writers — and lots of new fun for readers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mystery genres: part one

Mystery genres: part one
by Gunnar

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked the velvet night. A rose, after all, would delight us with its scent no matter what we called it.

But in the crime fiction genres, the name tells us a lot about what we’ll find between those covers. Mysteries, for example, range from delightful cozies to hard-boiled police procedurals — but a thriller is something else entirely and romantic suspense something else again. And capers aren’t only found in the woods, you know. So for your delectation, here’s a brief discussion of the categories that are generally lumped together under the heading of crime fiction.

Mystery is the original and classic of these genres, invented by Edgar Allan Poe with his 1841 short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” These are detective stories, where a crime’s been committed and someone must figure out whodunit so that justice may be served, and the reader’s fun lies in pitting wits against the book’s main characters, the detective and the villain. Arthur Conan Doyle made these stories popular in Victorian times with his celebrated consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and a slew of brainy writers made them the most fashionable books to read in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In the United Kingdom, everyone was reading Agatha Christie (first published in 1920) and Dorothy L. Sayers (1923). In the U.S. Ellery Queen brazenly told his readers when they should have solved the mystery, if they’d been paying proper attention. (This “Challenge to the Reader,” introduced in 1929, was a page near the end of the novel where the author stated that only one solution was now possible.)

But even as these writers perfected the classic mystery tale, the genre began to shatter. These brilliant stories, so perplexing and challenging, were also cerebral and unrealistic. Murders happened, but in the most bizarre of manners and always (always!) offstage, with no visual violence to mar the serenity of the tale. They happened in locked rooms, where no one entered or left, in theater companies, in art galleries — in civilized places rather than dark alleys. Amateurs drawing on their life’s experiences out-detected police professionals, usually in English country villages or Manhattan parlors. And would a murderer really hang around the scene of the crime long enough to strip the victim and replace all his clothing the wrong way around? (The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen, 1934. All the furniture in the room was reversed, too.)

Dashiell Hammett didn’t think so, and he was a Pinkerton operative so he should know something about this. In 1923 he began writing a different type of detective story, one with a focus on police stations, private detectives, forensics, weaponry, and the law. He was followed by other writers who felt the same: Earle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane. Their stories were dark, violent, often stark commentaries on modern city life, and distinctly American. Although these stories fascinated a different audience, they became just as popular as their gentler counterparts.

Today these two different categories of mysteries form the two ends of a genre spectrum. On one end is the so-called cozy, with an amateur detective and the violence covered by a lace tablecloth; on the other end is the hard-boiled police procedural, with autopsies on cold metal slabs. Most modern mystery novels fall somewhere between these bookends, with varying degrees of realism, police involvement, and on-screen violence. Cozies tend to focus on the puzzle, with the story’s climax coinciding with the revelation of whodunit, while police procedurals may reveal the criminal’s name earlier and instead focus on the take-down and evidence collection. Female readers tend to lean toward the cozy end of the spectrum, male readers toward the hard-boiled end, but like all other generalizations, this one shouldn’t be considered absolute.

"To Dr. Lee McClain of Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Program, for insisting I learn all this no matter how much I whinged."