WHODUNIT?

I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, perhaps to unstick myself from where I am stuck in my own book. I read to find the solutions other writers have come up with in their books. When the soluton is revealed and I find out who the murderer is or why the murderer did what he or she did, is it satisfactory? Does it leave me with a feeling that although I was mystified, I am now satisfied by the answer. Those mysteries are a pleasure.

Sometimes, though, I think that the writer doesn’t play fair or comes up with a solution that doesn’t make sense. The solution may be a great surprise, but it leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes writers do the “Hercule Poirot” ending where the detective or amateur sleuth gathers all the suspects together and accuses each character in turn of committing the murder, lays out the reasons why they did so, and then exonerates each one until he gets to the real murderer. That was good for Agatha Christie, who may have been the first to use it, but it get tedious when it continues to be used. Perhaps everyone has a reason to kill the victim, but not everyone is capable of murder or has a reason serious enough to kill.

That’s an other thing: the reason to kill must be serious. The killer must not only be capable of murder but must also have a really good reason to do so. Revenge for a terrible injury or protecting an important secret or shielding a loved one,. yes. Revenge for a social slight or insult, no. Revenge must be for something really serious.

I like an ending where the sleuth suddenly realizes who the murderer must be and pursues him or her to a satisfying climax, preferably with a chase or confrontation scene. That’s only my preference, of course. Obviously, not all mysteries should be alike. I’ve read many satisfactory mysteries where the murderer is known by the reader from the start, but the story is about the pursuit of the murderer by the sleuth or the sleuth’s realization of who the murderer must be. Or even, although this isn’t my favorite, a story told from the murder’s point of view as he or she escapes from the detective. In that kind of mystery, I find myself rooting for the murderer, and that’s kind of uncomfortable.

Anyway, the sticking point in the novel I am currently writing, the problem which is driving me to read one mystery after another in an attempt to forget my problem or, with luck, solve it, is the discovery early on of a safe deposit full of very expensive jewelry. The novel is the third in my Burgess Beach, Florida, series, featuring detective Andi Battaglia and her partner, Greg Lamont. It’s called REASONS TO DISAPPEAR, and the story concerns their captain, the man who ran the Burgess Beach Police Department, a real stickler for rules and regulations, who has disappeared, taking with him a lot of the city”s money and leaving behind the safety deposit full of jewelry. Is it solen? If so, from whom? By whom? How did the captain get hold of it? Why didn’t he take it with him when he left? What, if anything, does it mean?

I am inclined to trust my writing subconscious, which often causes me to put something in as I’m writing that I’m not sure I know the meaning of. This safe deposit box full of jewelry may be one of those things. Who does it belong to? Was it stolen? How did it get to the Captain’;s safe deposit box? Why is the Las Vegas mob interested in the jewelry? I hope my subconscious knows the answer and will reveal it to me soon.

CHARACTER ARC

The main character in any story needs to transform in some way or the story doesn’t go anywhere. If the main character remains the same throughout, there isn’t any story.

The narrative tells the story of how the main character grows or changes. But the character may not develop or change but remain even more intensely the same, that is, recommitted to the way he or she is at the beginning of the story. This is harder to write than a story in which there is clear character growth or change.

In a clear character arc, the narrative is the story of the change to the main character. Ths may happen through experience, the learning of new skills or simply through the passage of time. The character starts out in one way, and throughout the story, he grows and changes. The narrative arc of the story is that of the main character’s growth, however it is accomplished.]

But in some stories, there seems to be no change in the character, no character arc. The main character remains who he or she was at the beginning throughout the story. But, when you read the story carefully, you see that there is character movement. The character does not perceptibly change, but becomes even more steadfastly what he was at the outset.

A class I was in read a novella by Cynthia Ozick called THE SHAWL It’s the heartbreaking story of a woman in a concentration camp who has only the shawl which held her now-dead baby and its smell as a memory. The class members, as I remember, argued with the teacher that there was no discernable character arc in the novella, that she had not changed from beginning to end, and that this was a flaw, but as we talked, we saw that the essence of the story was the protagonist’s steadfast memory of her child and her commitment to that memory.

My novel PSYCHIC DAMAGE is a story of growth and change. In that story, Eva Stuart, addicted to allowing advice from psychics to guide her life and unable or unwilling to make decisions on her own, learns to be strong and independent, to make decisions and even to rescue her partner when he is kidnapped. Her character arc is clear.

This is more difficult to do in a series because the changes are often incremental and not as striking as they would be in a standalone novel. Still, within each story in a series, the protagonist, who doesn’t start out being perfect, gains new knowledge and becomes more adept at what he or she does.

For example, in the first book in my Florida series, A REASON TO KILL, the protagonist, Andi Battaglia, new on her job as a detective, learns through her work on the case to question suspects, evaluate informations for its truth or falsity and determine the solution to the murder. In the second book in the series, SO MANY REASONS TO DIE, Andi defies her supervisior in the hunt for the murderer, ending up suspended from duty but solving the murder.

How do those of you who write series create the incremental changes that contribute to the growth of your character? Do you find it difficult to do and do you plan those changes ahead or do they occur as the novel progresses?

WHAT PERSON?

 

How do you decide who’s going to tell the story? Often older fiction—works written before the twentieth century—uses the omniscient voice: the narrator tells the events, introduces the characters, recounts dialogue and all the details, but the narrator is not a character in the story. This narrator seems dated now, although it’s certainly still used.

One of the most famous opening lines of a novel is an example of this voice:

“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own               fashion.”                                                                       ANNA KARENIN by Leo Tolstoy.

We are in the hands of a narrator who looks on from outside, telling us the story but not involved.

The most common narrative voice in contemporary fiction is that of limited omniscience. The third-person voice is often associated with a character in the story who can only know the thoughts of some characters and may not know what happened when he or she is not present. Often that narrative voice switches from one character to another, so the reader can be filled in on what the main character has no way of knowing.

Probably the second most commonly used narrative voice is first person singular, usually the point of view of the main character. This works well for the unreliable narrator, someone who wants to keep the reader in the dark.

Second person isn’t used very often, but there are a few. I read BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney, a popular novel in the eighties, and found the second person voice annoying. And of course, the reason was that the character was annoying. I kept wanting to shake him or knock him over the head.

First person plural, the narrative “we”, also isn’t often used. It works for groups of people telling a story. I read THE LADIES AUXILIARY by Tova Mirvis years ago. It’s narrated by a group of Jewish women in a southern city, an unnamed Atlanta. The voice worked well as the group narrated and judged the behavior of the protagonist.

My preference in reading—and in writing—is the third person narrator. My Florida series mysteries are written in third person, the voice of Detective Andi Battaglia, but there are occasional switches to other third person narrators. This is the most comfortable narrative voice for me. It gives me the freedom to tell the story from Andi’s point of view, but to include incidents that Andi wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

My standalone mystery, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, is also written in third person, but in that book, everything is seen from the point of view of Eva Stuart and told in her voice.

I find first person singular useful for writing mysteries in the voice of an unreliable narrator who tells only what the narrator wants the reader to know. This has the effect of giving the reader a possibly distorted or untrue version of the actions.

What about other writers? Do you write in first or third? Or do you experiment with second person? I’ve never tried that myself. I’d like to read your comments.

California Crime Writers Conference

Last weekend was the California Crime Writers Conference, a bi-annual two-day conference sponsored by Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and the Los Angeles chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Since I’m on the board of Sisters in Crime/LA, I’ve been working on the conference. Specifically, I’ve been in charge of volunteers among the attendees to help out with various duties during the weekend. They are much appreciated.

The conference sold out early. It’s limited to 200 particpants, and it was filled up long before the deadline.  Our guests of honor were Hallie Ephron and William Kent Kruger, great mystery writers and very nice people.

There are four tracks: Writing Craft, Industry/Business, Law Enforcement/Forensics, and Marketing, and each track has four panel sessions per day, so there are lots of options to choose from. I went to several panels as well as spending time in the Auction Room selling raffle tickets and helping with the silent auction for the beautiful baskets, most made by one of our members.  I also spent some time in the Book Room where attendees could choose free books.

My favorite panel is always Author Idol where actor/writer Harley Jane Kozak reads first pages submitted by attendees to a panel of agents who listen and raise their hands when they decide they would not read any further. The agents are pretty brutal, but nonetheless, a number of first pages make it past that judgment, and one is awarded the prize of being the best first page. Harley Jane is terrific, the agents are tough, and the whole process is a lot of fun.

I was on a panel in the Marketing track called Visibility: Getting Yourself Known. That’s not my best skill, but I made my contributions and had a good time.

On Friday night cozy authors read from pages of works submitted by noir authors and vice versa. It was terrific to get a feeling for how a noir author darkens up the writing of  even the coziest author.

All in all, I had a great time. I was pretty exhausted by the time the conferenc was over. Fortunately, I stayed over Friday and Saturday nights at the hotel, so I didn’t have to cope with driving the freeways back and forth.

The next California Crime Writers Conference will be in 2019, and I will no longer be on the board. Nonetheless, I plan to attend. It’s always a delight!

 

LETTING YOUR CHARACTERS TELL THE STORY

Dialog: it’s the part of the story that makes the characters come alive on the page. When characters speak and how they speak create the atmosphere of the story.  Stories without dialog are told, not shown.

So, you, the writer, have to know your characters well enough so that when they speak, they sound like real people talking the way real people do.

What’s the purpose of dialogue, anyway. Is it to advance the story? Is it to reveal the characters? Is it just to break up the page?

I guess it’s all of those. Dialogue can be used to move the story along. But beware of the dialogue that is used to have one character tell another things that the second character already knows but that the reader doesn’t.

For example:

Smith said to Jones, “I’m glad you’re in on the Alpha Project, Jones. The Alpha Project is definitely the future of communication. You have the skills we need to capture the evil one.  I saw the way you managed that matter with the doctor, and I know you won’t have a problem with the evil one.. Our plan is to use you to scare him into letting himself be caught.”

It would certainly be much more interesting if we saw the way Jones managed the matter with the doctor and why he (or she) isn’t afraid of the evil one. In fact, all of what Smith said could be action, not dialogue. This kind of dialogue makes the reader yawn.

You need to be aware of who your characters are and how they talk. I’m not a fan of dialect and will usually bypass books where the characters obviously talk like people who live in Appalachia or Louisiana. I think the writer can convey the way the characters talk without resorting to dialect.  However, if you’re going to set a story in the deep South, for example, you may have to use some dialect. Just, for my sake, try to minimize it.

But you have to know your characters well enough so that they not only sound like real people but people who are different from one another. I have some difficulty with the male protagonist, Greg Lamont, in my Florida series. He’s a police detective and not a great talker, but I find myself having him talk more than he should.  He sometimes sounds like a woman, and I need to pare down his dialogue.

Andi Battaglia, Greg’s partner, talks more, probably because she’s female. She talks a lot when she’s nervous, kind of a character flaw. I need to keep that in mind when I’m writing.

There are differences of opinion among writers as to whether to use “he said,” or “she said,” to forget them entirely, or to always, or most of the time, indicate some action that identifies the speaker. I know I have read passages from writers, where there is not even a “he said” or “she said,” which means the reader must guess which of the characters said what. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes the reader has to go back to check who was last identified as the speaker and count down.

Using something that indicates how the words were spoken or using an action to go with the dialogue is a good way to get the reader to follow. For example, “He said with a forced smile;” “She said as she picked up the cup of tea;” “He said, shifting in his chair.” But you can’t always do that, and sometimes I find myself so carried away with what the characters are saying that I don’t look at them as they’re talking.

You can reveal a lot of information about your characters simply by the way you have them speak.  I’m always learning new ways to use dialogue.  What are your thoughts about dialogue?