Call Out the T-Rex!

by Janis Patterson

Whether a plotter or a pantser or anything in between, I’m sure every writer has reached a point in their current work where they despair. The characters aren’t behaving. An enormous and seemingly insoluble plothole has developed. The timeline makes no sense and crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. The whole project has turned into a dogs’ dinner of a mess and simply doesn’t make any kind of sense.

This kind of despair usually hits in the last few chapters, where the writer is desperately trying to wrap up all the plot threads and create a satisfying ending. Usually at this point the only thing that keeps you from tearing everything up is the sad knowledge that nothing new could be any better. This is why some writers drink. Others, like me, tend to wear out their hot tubs and wonder why they didn’t become a plumber.

Fortunately, though, professionals have learned how best to deal with the situation. I’m not going to say how, because the answer is different for every writer and sometimes for every book. What counts is the result, not the process.

When a writer is brainstorming trying to get past these obstructions, we sometimes have strange fancies. Not too long ago I was trying to finish up a novella that had given me trouble from the beginning. My stories are very character driven, meaning that after the initial set-up what transpires is the result of the characters and how they react/behave. (The opposite is called plot oriented, where the plot is fixed and, however illogically, the characters are required to behave in a way that forwards the pre-determined plot. Both versions have their reasons and their adherents.)

Well, I did have a skeletal story framework (it was an historical romance), but my characters rebelled. Instead of being a benevolent ringmaster guiding the characters through their logical paces, I had to become something between a dictator and a prison warden, forcing my recalcitrant and obstreperous characters to do what they were supposed to do to preserve the integrity of the story. It wasn’t a fault of the plot/story, because that worked out perfectly – in theory. The characters were just acting out and refusing to behave. Yes, for most writers the story develops to a point where the characters take over – and that’s a good thing, most of the time, because it means you have created real people, even if they do exist only in your head. (There is a reason writing has been called controlled schizophrenia for fun and profit…)

Anyway, I had been fighting this kind of rebellion for several days and the deadline was approaching with alarming speed. Had there been more time I just might have started over and locked this story away for a year or two, but that luxury wasn’t available. Finally I just sat back and decided that the best way to solve this was an unexpected ending – I would just have a T-Rex arise from the ornamental lake and gleefully eat all the characters. A nice, clean (except for the resultant and inevitable mess on the lawn) ending that resolved all problems.

Don’t worry – it remained a fantasy, but a most satisfying fantasy. I of course kept at it and finally figured out a way to resolve the problems, bring my recalcitrant characters back into line and end the story as planned. And I guess rather successfully, as the resulting book is one of my better sellers.

This ‘solution’ has been very beneficial, so much so that it has almost become standard in our house. As I near the end of a book The Husband has become canny enough to read my moods – and at certain times generally stay out of my way for his own safety! In these times he asks, “Is it time to call for the T-Rex?” If I say yes, he usually knows that it would be wise for him either to cook dinner or take me out. (I am so blessed to have him…)

As the word of this development spread through the family my nephew (who shares my somewhat skewed sense of humor) gave me a plastic T-Rex about six inches tall. This little gem resides in a small box decorated to look like a lake… until it is time to call him out; then he sits in proud glory on my desk, just waiting to devour any misbehaving characters.

Hey – it works for me, and no one ever said that writers have to be sane all the time!

The Joys of Having a Tribe

by Janis Patterson

Let’s face it – writing is a lonely business. Whether you’re a full-time writer or just part-time, whether you have a large family or a job or whatever, whether you’re like Jane Austen and can pen immortal prose sitting in a room full of chattering people, writing still basically comes down to you and the characters in your head.

Creating world and populations out of little but imagination and caffeine is hard and lonely work. What’s worse is that even if you have loving and supporting friends and family (and I know many don’t) unless they are writers themselves they don’t understand what a writer must go through to create.

That’s why I am so grateful for writers’ conferences. There we can gather with others like us, others who understand the hard work writing takes, the agony of finding out you made a mistake in chapter two that necessitates pretty much a total rewrite of the nearly-finished book, the frustration of having characters who suddenly decide to go their own way without your direction. (And woe betide, in my house at least, those who are so unwary as to say “But you made them up – they have to do what you say.” Yeah, sure.)

My husband, who since his retirement has been dragooned into being my Business Manager, and I just got back from the Novelists, Inc. conference in Florida. Besides being set on one of the loveliest beaches you can imagine in a beautiful resort where they treat us like kings, it is one of the smaller conferences (a 400 attendee cap, as opposed to some others where the people number in the thousands) and restricted to professional writers who have not only published a number of books but have also reached a certain floor of income. Although there is always a varied program of interest to professionals, in my opinion it is this interaction between writers that makes this conference special, especially for those who live in a writerly-things vacuum.

The first thing you notice about a writers’ conference is the noise level. Often attendees will skip the workshops that are of little interest to them in order to sit in the lobby or in the courtyard or on the beach and talk to other writers. With them they can share things they experience with the knowledge that there is a level of understanding there that even the most supportive and sympathetic non-writer can give. At mealtimes, especially those held indoors because of untrustworthy or even inclement weather, the noise level is unbelievable, enough to make the biggest bird house in the world sound like a cone of silence.

I said the NINC conference was capped at 400; it has been for many years. In January of 2020 the conference was almost sold out, but with the plague hysteria by the time the last week of September rolled around only 46 or 48 (tallies vary) of us actually showed up. We rattled around the huge resort like dried peas in a can, most of us quoting the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V far too often. This year it was better; there were 230-odd attendees. Both years there were only two workshop tracks, as opposed to the four that have always been standard, but this year all were in-person, as opposed to the half-in-person, half-virtual of 2020. (I intensely dislike virtual!) Some vendors did do some non-workshop virtual appearances, mainly on an individual by-appointment-only basis, and that was good.

So what is so important, so fulfilling about four days spent in the comforting embrace of your tribe? It’s not just the information in the workshops (valuable as that may be) or even the mini-vacation so many writers stretch the conference into. (The resort is very generous about giving us ‘shoulder days’ on either side of the conference at the deeply discounted conference rate.) The world is full of beautiful vacation spots, and in this day of the internet, websites and special interest email loops almost all the information from the workshops can eventually be found from the writer’s own computer. So…?

I believe it is the validation that we get from being with other writers. We writers are not different-from-normal creatures who live so much in our head. We also get to see and interact with friends made on the internet or separated by an inconvenient number of miles. It is human contact with those of our own kind. It is where you can talk openly about the benefits of strychnine versus arsenic as a killing method, or the sex life of a human-reptile shapeshifter, or if a woman raping a man is an acceptable opening to a passionate romance without worrying that the people at the next table will call the police… or the men in the little white coats. It is where you can discuss the business of writing and learn specifics of various businesses without fear of being sued or arrested. It is sharing experiences with those who have had the same experience.

It is, for too short a time, enjoying our tribe.

The Publicity Paradox

by Janis Patterson

It’s hard not to feel sorry for a poor writer. While most people think we are almost supernatural creatures living fantastic, fairy-tale lives, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, sometimes the truth is downright depressing.

Rather than reclining on a luxurious chaise longue, looking over some spectacular view, dashing off a couple of thousand words while sipping champagne (if you’re a romance writer) or pounding on an ancient mechanical typewriter in some dimly lit room with wonky venetian blinds and a bottle of hard liquor at your elbow (if you’re a mystery writer) or ensconced in a book-lined library with a fancy fountain pen and a bottle of smelling salts handy in case your own genius overcomes you (if you’re a literary writer), the real poor writer of whatever stripe is usually trying to cram his output into the nooks and crannies of his life.

These days it’s rare that a writer can make a complete living solely by his writing; nearly all of us have distractions such as jobs, children, families, homes, responsibilities, health issues and Heaven only knows what other interferences mortal flesh is heir to. That, plus in this whacky modern world of publishing the writer is mainly responsible for editing and publicity, both in the realms of self-publishing AND traditional publishing.

Champagne? We’re lucky if we get a chance to grab a diet Dr Pepper!

For me, publicity is especially galling. I do what I must to keep my and my family’s life going. I work very hard at writing the best books I can. I will admit I suck at publicity, even though I was well trained in doing it, mainly because I don’t like doing it and because I was raised to believe it is slightly trashy to blow one’s own horn.

In my opinion, the worst part is the current trend to spread out your private life and make friends with all your readers. My question is, Why? The fact that I dislike brussels sprouts and refuse to wear the color orange should have nothing to do with the quality or content of my books. Plus, I already have many, many friends – real friends, whom sadly I do not get enough chance to see because I’m always having to work. To be real a friendship has to grow organically. I don’t need a pseudo-friendship connection with a fan who wants to exchange recipes and chat about what we’re having for dinner or give me suggestions about my next book. What I’m fixing/ordering for dinner is no one’s business except for me and my family.

What should matter is the book – the story. That is what the reader should be interested in, not whether I prefer Veuve Cliquot or Prosecco, or drive a BMW or a Chevrolet, or live in a condo downtown or a two story house in the country. We are writers – spinners of tales, creators of worlds, manufacturers of dreams – not zoo animals on display for the amusement and edification of the intrusive public.

It’s our books which matter, our books which the readers buy – not unlimited access to our home and family and private life. Private life should be exactly that – private. Writers write stories and readers read stories. That’s the basic contract between writer and reader… or it should be.

The Murder Person Redux

by Janis Patterson

We’ve talked a lot about the myriad murder weapons present in the average home, and a little about what deadly things a murderer can carry on his person, on which I intend to expand a little after this warning.

If your murderer is going to use something clever (i.e., more than a rock or a gun or a knife) that he carries on his person he not only needs to be extremely smart but very careful. especially if the murder method results in instantaneous death. Then everyone who was with the victim is likely to be carefully scrutinized. We cannot rely on the police overlooking anything suspicious.

So with that caveat in mind, let’s talk about the actual killing. If your villain is going to be gone before death occurs there’s a lot more leeway in method.

How will your murderer handle such risk of exposure? Usually it will involve some specialized equipment,  barring the expected – and lamentably common – belts and scarves, etc. Here is where the ingenuity – and the sneakiness – of the murderer becomes paramount. If specialized equipment is necessary and the murderer can’t manufacture it himself, he must find a safe and secret way of obtaining it. Remember, the more people who know a secret the less of a secret it becomes and the more of a risk exists for the murderer.

If your killer is a woman, jewelry is a good choice. An earring with an edge sharpened so fine it can slice arteries. A garotte wire woven through a chunky metal necklace, though with this method you must be sure that it leaves no identifiable imprint in flesh as chain patterns are very recognizable. There is also the question of disposability. You don’t want to be caught wearing the murder weapon.

One way of murder requires a very daring and brave – if not downright foolhardy – killer. This would not work where there is a possibility of a body search of witnesses and would probably work best in a crowded venue. The murderer secretes a thin needle to the inside of a finger, with thin surgical tubing running up his arm to a bladder secreted somewhere on his person. Under the clothes under the arm to a pocket where it could be manipulated with the free hand would be the best choices. Fill the bladder with the poison of choice – a very fast acting one would be my preference, as you don’t want your victim to remember he felt a sharp prick or that your murderer was standing very close by at the time!

Personally, my choice would be curare, the South American neurotoxin. Fill the bladder, grasp the hand or arm or neck of your victim, make sure the needle enters the skin, squeeze the bladder… almost instantaneous death. And most likely untraceable if you did your sourcing cleverly, as one of the benefits of curare is that it dissipates almost instantly and leaves no trace in the body, which makes finding ‘cause of death’ almost impossible. Of course, your murderer would need superb neuromuscular skills in order to make sure he didn’t jab himself. I’m too much of a klutz to even think of trying this method. I would probably end up being my first victim! And if you worry about supply sourcing, you can order curare over the internet. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just search creatively.

So – if you want a memorable murder, if you want something different, just let your imagination roam. While it’s terrifying, it’s also true that almost every object in this world can be used as a murder weapon in the hands of a clever villain. Your murderer is limited only by your imagination… and his conscience.

The Murder Person

by Janis Patterson

After the wonderful reception of my last two blogs on the Murder House I couldn’t stop thinking that it was foolish to limit our villain just to the interior of an average house. Murder can be just as deadly and diabolical with what our villain has on his person. Of course, it will require more knowledge, more planning, even more daring than in the theoretically private environs of a house, but a canny villain can be just as deadly with what is on their body.

Of course, there are the obvious things – a belt or scarf or even a necklace for a garotte or perhaps in the right circumstances smothering, a concealed knife or gun, even a blunt instrument such as a few rolls of coins in a sock or scarf – the ‘cosh’ so beloved of old-style gangsters. However – while effective, those tools are crude and totally lacking in imagination. The canny mystery writer wants something more stylish, more imaginative… and less traceable.

The first thing that comes to mind is those sky-high stiletto heels worn by young fashionistas. Properly applied to a suitably vulnerable portion of the anatomy – say the nasal cavity into the brain, or the temple, or with the right knowledge of anatomy the brain stem or any of the major arteries, especially in the neck or groin – they can be very deadly. That is, once our murderer is sure they can walk in them without falling or attention-drawing staggering – something I was never able to master even in my youth. Another drawback is the relatively short space between the heel tip and the beginning of the sole – usually no more than 2 ½ – 3 inches. That would constrict the field of effective use and rule out punctures to the heart.

A nice touch would be to have the murderer be a man dressed as a woman who immediately divests himself of the female clothing – where it could be neither found nor traced to him, a challenging exercise in itself. I’m sure a clever writer could overcome that, though.

Let’s get more creative. Remember a generation or so ago a man was killed on a London street by the means of a small (I mean really tiny) ball filled with ricin (made from the castor bean plant, remember?) injected from the tip of an umbrella by a seeming passer-by? That’s very convoluted and unless the killer is a scientist very dangerous way of getting rid of someone, but it worked. As I remember it took the authorities years to figure it out. However, it has been proved to work and if it fits your scenario, go for it.

More workable are more common poisons, and unless the murderer and victim meet quite often so a long-term poisoning is feasible, they have to be fast-acting. Again there is the crushed OTC pain reliever which will kill over time after one dose by creating a cascade liver failure. This has the benefit of death occurring long – sometimes weeks – after the murderer has dosed the victim, but one drawback is that the resulting necessary powder is a fairly large amount and the taste is quite bitter. However, if the murderer is clever, he can carry a lethal dose on his person, give it all to the victim in some innocuous fashion and, once sure the victim has ingested it all, get away scot-free.

One of the classic means is the poison ring. After all, if it worked for Lucretia Borgia, it should work for our villain. An anecdote – my father was a wonderful and intelligent man who had the same wacky sense of humor as I. Our family had just come back from a trip to Mexico, where Daddy had bought me a poison ring, which I still have. It was a cheap tourist thing, with an obvious hinge on the side of the stone that wouldn’t fool any reasonably alert person. Daddy used saccharine tablets in his coffee, and in play – since he could never remember to bring his tablets with him – I started putting them in my poison ring. Instead of giving them to him, I simply started dumping them into his coffee cup, which Daddy and I both thought highly amusing. (Yes, we were easily amused!) My mother’s thoughts on our charade are not suitable for public pixilation, but she was a very starchily correct lady. How she must have suffered with my father’s and my antics!

Anyway. One day we were having lunch at our club and Daddy was involved in a conversation with a colleague when the waitress came by to fill his coffee cup. As was our custom I reached over, opened my ring and dumped two saccharine tablets into his coffee. The colleague’s eyes widened and – ostentatiously accidentally – he managed to knock the cup off the table, spilling it, before Daddy could take a sip. No one ever said a word – except Mother, who said a great deal of them to Daddy and me later – but we didn’t do the poison ring thing again. Sigh. It was fun while it lasted.

However – you don’t need a real poison ring to get the benefit of similar surreptitiousness. The good ones are incredibly expensive, too. All you need is a (hopefully cheap, since your villain will probably be discarding it right after) large costume jewelry ring where the base of the stone sits high above your finger creating a fair-sized gap big enough to hold a sufficient amount of poison.

Now this is important. It is a terrible fashion faux pas to wear rings on top of gloves, but you have to protect your skin from accidental absorption of the poison. Put a circle larger than the base of the ring of Liquid Glove or NuSkin (there are other brands, too – these are the only ones I can remember at the moment) to create a barrier between your skin and the poison. Depending on the size of the ring and the situation your villain will have to practice to be able to get the poison from under the ring into something your victim will ingest without drawing undue attention.

Now this is important. Once the poison has been delivered, your villain must get rid of the under-ring barrier. As it contains both poison and your contact DNA and possibly your fingerprints, that little circle of fake skin – probably between the size of a quarter and a half-dollar – is a conviction ready to happen, so you must be very careful of how it is disposed of.

For Heaven’s sake, do not eat it – there might be enough residual poison to do your villain a mischief. Don’t just throw it away in a handy waste can, either; destroy it. Cut it into teeny-tiny pieces and flush it, making sure all of it enters the sewer system. Burn it and if there is an ash residue, flush it. Whatever you decide, just make sure it is thoroughly, completely destroyed with no hope of being reconstructed. How many villains have been caught because of inadequate aftercare?

By now you have probably decided that I am thoroughly warped, and you might be right. However – this post has gone on much too long and I haven’t finished. So – if you are brave, or equally warped, think about coming back next month when I (hopefully) finish up with The Murder Person.