The Backstory

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

I had a great event at the Longport Public Library last week, in Longport, N.J. It’s a fabulous New Jersey Shore town—I highly recommend it if you have a chance to visit! One of the things I loved about the event was having to respond to some remarkably in-depth questions about process and writing. I tend to think about these things peripherally or as I’m doing them, so it’s always valuable to have to sit back and spell it out.

IMG_3989
Mystery Writer Jane Kelly (right) interviews me at the Longport Public Library

One issue that came up in our conversation was the use of background information. There’s a lot of that in every book. Each character has his or her own backstory. In my books, the setting is one of the characters, so it has its own backstory, too.

The dilemma every author faces is, how much of that information do I include in the story? The trick is to find a balance, to include just enough to let the reader understand and relate to the character or the place without feeling overburdened by history.

bookcase books bookshop bookstore
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

While my books focus on different cultures, they take place in present day. But that doesn’t mean there’s no history. Every place I visit today is the way it is because of its history, and I need to explore and understand that history in order to faithfully reproduce that place on paper. It takes skill to let that backstory seep through the plot, through the characters and their actions, rather than simply dumping facts and details in giant piles on each page.

I can only imagine how much harder the task of culling down the details is for someone who writes historical mysteries!

I leave so many words out of each book, descriptions and details that I write down diligently, only to cut in later editing as I see that they’re not really needed. I hope that with each book, my skill in this area is getting stronger.

Fortunately, I love learning these details of each place I visit and the places I write about. I don’t mind working through this background then cutting it — I know it’s not wasted time. Getting those facts and descriptions and timelines down on paper means that the story I write will be accurate and informed by each location’s unique characteristics.

What do you think? Have you read something that overburdened you with backstory or left you feeling like you didn’t get quite enough?

Adam-Kaminski-Series

Jane Gorman is the author of the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series. Learn more at jane gorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

 

The World Through My Eyes

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

The fifth book in the Adam Kaminski mystery series will come out this summer. I am so excited to share it with you! I’ve spent the past two years working on this book that looks at the world through the eyes of a photographer, while also telling the story of a cruise in which everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing is the opportunity to look at the world through other peoples eyes. Because my series has one main character– Adam Kaminski – who always finds someone to help him out, I have the pleasure of creating a new point-of-view character for each book (that is, a character whose thoughts you, the reader, get to hear.)

In this book my second leading character is Julia Kaminski, sister to Adam. Julia has appeared in most of the other books in the series, so I’m not creating her from scratch. But this is the first time I’m writing from her perspective, describing the world through her eyes. In this case, the eyes of a photographer. There can be no doubt, we all see the world a little bit differently.

 

A-Pale-Reflection-Web-Small
A very blurry suggestion of the cover for A Pale Reflection  – the world as I might see it!

Personally, I’ve been wearing glasses since I was five (and probably needed them before that). The world through my eyes looks very different. Terribly near-sighted, without my glasses I see blurs of color without distinct shapes. Every pin prick of light becomes a giant, glowing snowflake. It’s actually quite beautiful! As long as I don’t need to see clearly. These days, I wear bifocals, so I get two different views of the world depending how I hold my head! (And does anyone hate progressive bifocals as much as I do? I couldn’t stand them.)

As an aside, I recently saw a video about very young children – one year or younger – getting glasses and being able to see their mothers’ faces clearly for the first time. The expression of joy on their faces was indescribable. How the doctors were able to figure out a) that they needed glasses and b) what their prescription was I have no idea. But it is remarkable.

 

IMG_3813
Bifocal and near vision only – just two of the many pairs of glasses in my life!

My husband, on the other hand, is farsighted. How strange! After a lifetime of holding things next to my face to read them, I can’t imagine only being able to see clearly when things are far away. The world he sees is very different from the world I see.

I’m pretty sure the same holds true for reading. I write a book and let it out into the world. Now it’s up to the reader to see whatever he or she sees in it. I love hearing other peoples perspectives of my books — don’t get me wrong — but I admit there are times when I hear someone describing one of my characters and I think: can’t I just give you a prescription that lets you see it the way I see it?

A Pale Reflection, my book about seeing the world – and other people – clearly, comes out this summer. Check out my Facebook page or sign up for my newsletter at my website to see the full cover soon. And follow me on Instagram to see photos of my world. I hope my perspective of other people’s perspective will keep you entranced – and wondering who the killer is!

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

The Devil in the Details

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

What are the differences in symptoms between cyanide poisoning by inhalation or by ingestion? What is the best way to store evidence? What work happens on a lavender farm in early October? How are French wine labels governed by the state?

lavender
I like research that requires learning about wine and visiting lavender farms

The topics a mystery writer may find herself researching are never boring! We rely on resources including — but by no means limited to—manuals, interviews with experts, visits to unusual places, even Google searches. 

When a murder is committed in our books, even if it takes place off the page, we need to know exactly how it was done and what clues might be left behind. When a victim is found in a particular location, we need to know why he or she was there to begin with. When a suspect produces an alibi that doesn’t hold water, we need to know the detailed explanation of why not — even when we don’t share all those details with the reader.

The question of how many details to share is a big one. For a book to pass muster as a realistic story, a certain level of explanation and accuracy is necessary. But include too many details, and suddenly your reader finds herself reading a how-to manual instead of an engrossing story. 

IMG_3781
My kind of how-to manual!

Of course, different readers look for different types of details. How we as writers present our stories is a big part of what makes up a writer’s “voice.” Some writers are known for their intricate explanations, whether of crimes or locations or corpses. Readers who loves those writers thrive on those details — to them, it brings the story to life. Other readers look for a book that skims over the detail. They’re less worried about how accurate the description of police activity is and more interested in the emotional arc of the characters involved. And some readers want it all!

Some of these differences are determined by the subgenres within the mystery genre — some books are thrillers, others suspense or cozies. Each type has its own expectations. No one who picks up a cozy is looking for a graphic description of the corpse, but leave out the details of the chocolate cake recipe and you’re asking for trouble!

The writer must know her readers’ expectations and not disappoint. My books are traditional mysteries, which means they follow the line of providing succinct and accurate descriptions of crimes and how they are committed, but keep the focus on the plot and characters. When I’m looking for a fun read at bedtime, however, I usually grab a cozy mystery, something I can cuddle up with along with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy. Hey, who said we could only read one subgenre?

So how much detail should a writer include? Not too much, but just enough. 

How much detail do you look for in the books you read?

And if you’re wondering, the first two questions above I had to answer for my book A Pale Reflection, coming out later this year. The second two are for the book in the series after that (yes, while one book is with the editor, I get to work on the next one).

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

Fictional Crime

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

The Adam Kaminski Mystery Series are fiction. I base the stories on some true events — historical events, for example, or crimes I read about in the newspapers, or interactions I’ve had in the past with diplomats and law enforcement officers. But in the main, the stories originate in my head. No one was hurt in the making of these books.

No Animals Harmed

This past weekend, I was thrilled to once again join the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sisters in Crime for a lecture by a local expert in crime and murder. Of the true variety.

I’m not usually a fan of true crime stories. I love reading about fictional murders, with fictional victims and fictional sleuths. Hearing about grisly murders that really took place, about a sick, twisted individual who really did kill innocents, is disturbing. Fascinating, yes, but disturbing.

IMG_3757

Our speaker this month was Sam Cox, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Sam spoke to us about her involvement in the exhumation and identification of the remains of H. H. Holmes, commonly known as America’s first (known) serial killer.

Holmes is suspected of killing as many as 200 people. During the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, he ran a hotel just off-site that was later determined to have a lime pit and large incinerator in the basement — handy for getting rid of unwanted bodies.

Hearing Sam tell this story, I was hooked. Sam’s work was included in a recent series by the History Channel, American Ripper. Her team is featured in the final episode. I recommend it!

History Channel
I loved hearing her talk about the techniques they used to dig up his grave then identify the bones they found. She told us about what was actually proven in the case and what was still conjecture. She explained how the detectives at the time tracked him and the bodies he left in his wake as he ran.

As a writer, this lecture was invaluable as a source of ideas and information. We learned about investigative and exploratory techniques that law enforcement can use in identifying victims and killers. We got a glimpse behind the scenes.

As a reader, I’m intrigued by the personalities involved. The nonchalance of the serial killer, the determination of the detective who finally tracked him down.

That said, I don’t think I’ll become an avid reader of true crime stories. There’s something comforting about murder mysteries: the killer always gets caught, the hero always saves the day (well, not for the victims, but for those who survive).

I like the feeling that once you’re done, all is right with the world. And I try not to think too much about the true killers still lurking, out there, in the real world…

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

Learn more about Jane Gorman at JaneGorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

Who Saw That?

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

Julia Kaminski, sister to the hero of the Adam Kaminski mystery series, is a photographer. A good one. She’s still figuring out how to make a living in her chosen profession. In an ideal world, she’d earn her money by showing and selling her photographs at galleries. But until that happens, she’s getting by by taking on gigs as a photographer at wedding or parties. And still holding out for her big break.

Julia’s photographs take on new meaning in book 5 in the series, A Pale Reflection. Julia finally gets a leading role, after appearing as a side character in the first four books, and jumps into the chance to use her photographic skills to help her brother Adam figure out whodunnit.

27591728_Unknown

The thing about photographs is they capture more than you might realize. You, the tourist, for example, sees a beautiful scene and snap a shot. It may only be later, as you go back to look through the photographs, that you notice someone or something in the picture you hadn’t previously realized was there. Or someone watching when you thought you were alone.

27599568_Unknown

In my family, my husband is the photographer. We just had the amazing opportunity to spend a glorious week in Rome. (Will Adam Kaminski be solving a murder in Rome in the near future? Stay tuned!).

Chuck, my husband, takes spectacular photographs of traditional scenes — statues, artwork, natural beauty and urban beauty. But he also finds joy in surprising details. For example, catching an unexpected eye.

IMG_3708

For us, it’s fun. We use these photographs to share our experiences with friends and family and to refresh our own memories of the time we spent there. And if we were trying to catch a killer, the “mouth of truth” pictured here would be a huge help!

IMG_6641

Of course, we’re not trying to solve a murder. For Julia and Adam, a photograph can mean so much more. Even the difference between life and death.

IMG_6700

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook. For some great photographs of Rome and her other travels, check out her Instagram page!

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

When Words Matter

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

I was working on my current manuscript the other day, when the idea for a short story came to me. I’m not a short story writer. I’ve tried. I did not succeed. But I was struck by the idea, wondering why it came to me. At this point, I’m more interested in the idea than in writing the actual story.

The story would go something like this: an average guy accidentally gets involved in a battle between good guys and bad guys from the future (yes, I’m a Sci-Fi fan). He doesn’t have the skills or knowledge that the future warriors do, but he has a good heart and a lot of courage. He joins the battle and helps the good guys win. They invite him to join them, to travel to the future with them, where he can have a better life. He’s thrilled. He’s got no family he’ll miss (maybe his wife just died in childbirth or something tragic like that).

He travels to the future with his new friends, excited for the life that awaits him. When he arrives, he’s processed into his new community. You know the type of thing: paperwork, blood tests, analyses to make sure he’s safe. To make sure he’ll assimilate well. Everything goes great, until they get to the final page of the questionnaire.

“What is—well, ahem, I suppose I should say what was your profession? What can you do to contribute to our society?” The future agent man asks him.

“I’m a writer,” our hero replies. “I write fiction. Books. Stories.”

Future agent man blanches. He stands, the papers he holds shaking in his hands. He glances at the two-way mirror on the wall and jerks his chin toward it in some sort of signal.

Our hero, for the first time, starts to worry about his decision. Two burly men in white suits carrying long, silver tubes enter the room.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t let you stay,” future agent man explains apologetically. “Writers are too dangerous. Too subversive. We don’t allow those types here.”

Our hero doesn’t feel a thing as he is humanely euthanized.

IMG_0894

Sometimes I feel powerless. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a cog in a machine that I can’t control. But we all have our own way of moving our little part of the machine. Maybe we can’t steer, maybe we can’t even control our speed, but for each of us there’s something we can do. For me, it’s writing.

author pic
The author in her natural habitat

I love the fact that I can build my own worlds, create my own characters, heroes and villains. Bad things happen, but they generally end well. (Alright, not for the people who get killed, obviously. But usually for everyone else!)

When I write, I need to remember to do it with intention, with thoughtfulness (my fellow Lady of Mystery, Amber Foxx, might say mindfulness). Because what I write matters.

I think my idea was connected to the fact that today is Martin Luther King Day. He was a man who knew how to use words, as well as actions. His words had power. They still do.

I’m inspired by him in many ways. One of those ways is recognizing that words matter.

To learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series, visit her website at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook.

Adam-Kaminski-Mystery-Series

My Writing Community

thumb_IMG_1225_1024

At this time of year, it’s not unusual to spend some time thinking about — and being grateful for — friends and family. I have a warm, loving family and I’m fortunate to have friends who inspire, amaze and support me. But today, I’m thinking in particular about my writing community.

Writing is a solitary endeavor. It kind of has to be, doesn’t it? You, the writer, sit down at a keyboard and type. The ideas come from your head (or from the pages and pages of notes and research you’ve done on your topic!). That’s the classic picture of the writer: sitting alone in a room, writing.

writers-block-vintage

But wait, there’s more: for those of us lucky enough, there’s the writing community.

As I progressed along the path to being a published author, I got to know other writers and other artists. I’ve written before about my involvement in groups like the Sisters in Crime, my attendance at writing conferences, and of course there’s the wonderful community here at Ladies of Mystery.

I cannot emphasize enough the value I find in spending time with, getting to know, learning to rely on other writers. I look forward to every post here on Ladies of Mystery, to see what questions and challenges my fellow mystery writers are dealing with and how they respond to them.

23434836_1980895758852410_8714231619640224384_n

Thanks to my involvement in the Guppy chapter of the Sisters in Crime, I have a team of people ready to respond to frantic questions ranging from details of cyanide poisoning to the appropriate position of a challenging comma to the best way to describe a character’s face (always one of my biggest challenges).

IMG_5466

My writerly life was forever improved when I decided an hour was not too far away to drive to meetings of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime. Through this inspiring group of writers (men and women, of course), I’ve been introduced to new ways of thinking about mysteries, characters that seem to be standing in front of me, and questions from readers that simply wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.

I’ve been so fortunate to be included in an anthology of mysteries written by some of the best mystery writers I’ve read — check out the Sisters of Suspense anthology for some great mysteries!

Sisters of Suspense Cover

I’ve benefitted from my participation in public celebrations and book readings. Each event gives me another opportunity to figure out how to talk about my books, how to talk about myself, and how to build my relationship with my readers.

So today, I’m feeling warm and fuzzy thoughts about my writing community, and I wish everyone in it — and those who may one day join it — a warm, wonderful holiday season and a very happy new year.