Of Men and Monsters

by Janis Patterson

Not too long ago one of the radio shows we listen to gave the history of Andrew Kehoe, who on May 8, 1927 went on a mass killing spree. A strange sort of man, he was a farmer in Bath Township, Michigan. While he could fix almost any mechanical contraption – and often did for his neighbors without charge – he neglected his farm and abused his animals.

Then when the local school system raised his taxes by $19.80 cents to pay for a new school, something snapped. Kehoe decided to kill every schoolchild in Bath Township. He was hired to fix some electrical work at the new school, which he did, while putting in place massive charges of explosives. He had been setting off explosions at his farm, telling the curious he was just blasting up stumps. He had really been testing electric detonation devices. Finally, the day before school was to be out, he set off the explosives at the school. Then, having beaten his wife to death, he blew up his house, his barn, the trees on his place and his farm animals.

Having packed his car with explosives and every bit of scrap metal he could find around his farm, Kehoe drove into town, where he was horrified to find that only half the school had actually blown up. The explosion had apparently made the detonators in the other half malfunction. He was horrified to have failed. It is not known what he originally had in mind for his explosive-and-scrap metal loaded car, but he was determined to bring down the school completely and kill the children who had survived the original blast. He tried to get his car close to the still-standing half, but the school superintendent came up to ask what he was doing

Kehoe hit the detonator, killing the superintendent and himself, sending shrapnel-like shards out into the crowd of hysterical parents and destabilizing the remaining part of the school. Then it was discovered there were still unexploded charges in the school. By then the fire departments and others from nearby Lansing had arrived, and they sealed the building until the explosives could be cleared away. Of course, there were still children both living and dead in the school and their parents had to listen to their cries while not being allowed to go to them, or even know if their child was alive or dead.

Had he still been alive at that moment, Kehoe would probably have loved it.

So what makes such a monster? By all accounts until the tax bill arrived Kehoe was considered a pretty good guy. Perhaps a little eccentric in some of his ways, but who of us does not know – or is not – someone who doesn’t have a little bit of eccentricity? Yet how many turn into monsters?

Monster or saint, they are all human beings. Sometimes it stretches credulity that the same species which produces beings such as Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and Dr. Alfred Schweitzer can also produce the likes of Adolf Hitler, Andrew Kehoe and Ted Bundy. But it not only can, it does with unwavering regularity.

So how does this affect our writing? We must remember that to be real our heroes and our villains must be human beings with flaws, strengths and weaknesses. No one person is either completely evil or completely saintly. Albert Einstein was an incredible genius, but he had – at least in his early years – a somewhat rollicking and for the time unconventional love life. I’m told Adolf Hitler was kind to cats.

As writers, if we wish to be good writers, we cannot commit the sin of making a character that is completely and thoroughly good or evil. That makes them one dimensional, a literary piece of cardboard who just stands there and parrots the words we put in their mouths.

To become a living, breathing, believable character your creation has to be a mixture of both good and evil. A character who does only good, proclaims only good and put good above all else no matter the cost to himself is a cartoon. (I’m thinking along the lines of Dudley Do-Right.)  Same thing with a villain and evil. Both of them must have some characteristics of the other – a hero who hates dogs and is not averse to a tiny bit of cheating on his taxes is a lot more believable as a human being, just as is a villain who donates to animal charities and helps old ladies across the street.

You must always remember that even heroes have dark sides and monsters have virtues. Perhaps not many, but each has some.

Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.

The Terrible, Necessary, Unavoidable Triumvirate

by Janis Patterson

In last month’s blog I talked about musery, and how the concept of a mythological goddess whispering ideas and words into a writer’s shell-like ear was a catch-all used to combine the rock-bottom basics of inspiration, imagination and skill. You see, to be a writer – a writer of any worth, a writer with any hopes of publishing – you need all three.

Inspiration is the beginning; this is the start of creating something from nothing. A ghost of an idea. An isolated incident that could be pampered and grown into something more. A starting place.

Imagination is what takes the ephemeral, insubstantial bud of an idea and feeds it, molds it, multiplies it into an acceptable storyline. Like a cook creating a recipe from the beginning idea of two ingredients, a writer will spin a complete storyline, adding in heroes and villains, buffoons and sages, problems and victories, and eventually bring it to a desired and logical conclusion.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it will come to nothing if the writer does not possess the final part of the triad – skill.

In this context the simple word ‘skill’ has a labyrinth of meanings. The most basic form is what we used to call fifth-grade English – mastery of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. In other words, the solid skeleton of language on which you can hang the gossamer flesh of your story.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that correct and standard usage of English is if not a dying at the very least a fading art. Typos and plain mistakes that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago are now not only tolerated, but hardly noticed. Where once a single typo in a published book was a point of shame, now it is regarded as a triumph.

But this post is not to rant about the relaxing of standards, it is to point out the need for plain old skill to use the language to create your world and your story. Everyone knows the example of ‘eats – shoots – and – leaves’ and its two very different meanings. ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ is a very different sentence from ‘Eats shoots and leaves.’ A single comma changes the sentence from the reporting of a violent action to a descriptor of an herbivore’s diet.

It’s the same thing with ‘she took a peek’ (i.e., she snuck a quick look) to ‘she took a peak’ (she conquered a mountain top). Such mistakes can pull a reader out of the story in an instant, to say nothing of confusing the action. Doesn’t make the author look very good, either.

Our imaginations might be our stock in trade, but our command of language – and our skill in using it – are what makes it possible for us to communicate our stories to others. Inspiration, imagination and skill – the essential tools a writer must have.

Musery, or Conversations With A Goddess

by Janis Patterson

On one of my writers’ loops the other day a bunch of us were lamenting the fact that we all couldn’t just write and leave the business side of publishing to someone else. These days however you are published you have to deal in the non-creative side of the book industry – publicity, editing and all the rest. As we all were having the same problems, someone said she was grateful for other writers, as ‘misery loves company.’

Well, you know I can’t leave a single quip unturned, so I popped back, “Shouldn’t that be musery?” My rather smart-ass remark has turned into a… well, not a phenomenon, but a comment that is spreading. ‘Musery’ is a growing concept.

So what is Musery? It is taken from the legend of the Muse, a mythological construct of some goddess or another who is constantly whispering fantastic prose into a writer’s shell-like ear… which all writers know is pretty much wishful thinking. Even if you get ideas constantly peppering you like beneficent shotgun pellets as I do, ideas by themselves are pretty useless – nice, and a necessary beginning, but by themselves pretty much useless. No book ever came from ideas alone. It would be sort of like trying to live in only the foundation of a house.

Ideas (and it takes many to make a book) are only the beginning. You need believable characters, many complications, conflicts… the whole menu of writerly tools. Many of us need the interaction and brainstorming with other writers, and then there is research and finally – and perhaps most importantly – a command of the language that can make the whole heap of disparate parts into a readable and hopefully enjoyable book.

This seemingly magical combination of elements is the essence of Musery, which boils down to the basics of inspiration, imagination and skill. Done right, it appears effortless, which is probably the basis of the popular belief that some magical creature dictates the finished product to the writer, who has only to write it down, thus perpetuating its own myth that writing a book is a piece of cake that anyone could do if they only took the time.

Yeah, right. The fastest way to reach your Muse always has, is and always will be hard work. Now I have to go propitiate mine with a couple of hours at the computer.

Ooooh, Shiny!

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit it. I have a short attention span. I’m all too ready to be distracted by something new and different. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t particularly like series – either writing or reading. I want something new.

I never realized that this failing of mine extended to my own books. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to have two romantic/gothic/mysteries published by the incredible Vinspire Publishing. I was delighted to be with them, as both books are really rather special stories to me and Vinspire is indeed a gem among publishers. Although they are more than half mysteries, they were brought out under my Janis Susan May name instead of the Janis Patterson I now use for mysteries.

Both are set in the mid-to-late 1960s. DARK MUSIC is about a romance writers’ conference (yes, there were such things before RWA was begun in 1980) set in a Canadian resort hotel. Then there’s a freak blizzard trapping the conferees, including the heroine and her ex-husband; then someone starts to murder the romance writers one by one. It was a fun book.

The second book is ECHOES IN THE DARK, about a photographer with a broken leg who gets taken – reluctantly – by her ex-husband to an aged resort hotel in the Arkansas wilderness to join an archaeological dig he is spearheading. The heroine also has a head injury and is prone to hallucinations. When she sees a ghost that isn’t an hallucination, her troubles really start.

Before you ask, when I wrote these two books I was in the throes of a painful breakup of a long-time romance that had gone sour. Writing was cheaper than analysis, and sometimes killing people in pixels is excellent therapy!

These are both good books. I like them and enjoyed writing them. I didn’t realize how I had pretty much forgotten about them. Then Vinspire started bundling their books and asked what we were doing to PR them. I was ashamed to admit even to myself that I had done nothing in the longest time. I had put so much time and energy on writing new books (isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) that these two little gems had simply faded into the background, a spot they really didn’t deserve.

So now I’m really doing a lot of publicity for them, but it’s making me think about how my – or anyone’s – career should be prioritized. I only have so much time. I have to write. I have to publish. I have a family and a life and other obligations.

What has to give?

What indeed.

 

Setting Chaos Right

by Janis Patterson

Admittedly, there is something strange about those who spend a great deal of their time in thinking up ways to do away with another of their fellow beings. Someone once wrote that a person who repeatedly tries to devise a way of killing another is either a psychopath or a mystery writer, and that sometimes the line between them blurs. I resent that. I spend a great deal of time finding ways to eradicate some poor soul, but I don’t feel like a psychopath. At least, not most of the time.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?

Aside from the fact I’m much too afraid of getting caught to even think of trying anything for real, I believe we do it because as writers and as readers we fans of murder have a very strict sense of honor and decency and justice.

Whether we’re plotting the demise of a nosy next door neighbor or creating a scheme to eradicate the populace of a distant planet, we are creating mayhem and chaos. Murder is against the natural order of things – it is unnatural, and the unnatural is disturbing to us. However – if we create it ourselves as writers, we control it. We know from the beginning that however bad things get, we can set it right and good will triumph again.

Now I can hear some of you muttering that there are many books where the killer is not punished, that he walks away unscathed. Yes, of course there are, but in the traditional mystery framework (even if it is set on a distant planet many eons in the future or the past) we know that the bad will be punished and order restored. Even if the law is not served, justice will be, and the two are not always the same thing. Sometimes a murder can be a good thing, and to punish the killer would be unfair. As was written in Texas law until not too many years ago, there are some folks who just need killing!

By contrast, real life is messy. People are murdered and the perpetrator is never caught, and sometimes even if he is he isn’t convicted. There is no guaranteed happy/good/righteous ending, and sometimes the uncertainty of that ambiguity is unbearable. I think people turn to mysteries both as readers and as writers because they need the framework of justice guaranteed to be triumphant. I know I do.

In the worlds we create horrible things happen, yes, but in the end right and justice prevail. The murderer is going to be stopped some way. Our senses of balance and security and rightness are restored. All is well.

Would it could be that way in real life.

 

What Makes A Writer? Nature or Nurture?

by Janis Patterson

What makes a writer? Is it genetic? Or the way we are raised? Or something we choose that we feel we must follow? Or all of the above?

To begin with let me say I am the third generation of a wordsmith family. One grandfather was a small-town newspaper publisher in a time and place where that was a position of power. Both grandmothers were at one time teachers. My father was editor and/or publisher of several Texas newspapers, taught journalism at Texas A&M (he also separated the journalism department from the English department and made it a separate discipline) and, with my mother started and owned one of the top 300 advertising agencies in the US. My mother was an English teacher, a play producer and a magazine columnist. I started working in the family agency when I was nine – as a stripper, no less. (And no, it’s not what you’re thinking, but it is a great line to use at a cocktail party!) I graduated to writing copy when I was twelve.

Obviously I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of becoming anything else but some variety of wordsmith!

But was it nature or nurture? Yes, our house was full of books. It still is. The Husband and I live in a house with two dedicated libraries and a hobby room with five enormous bookshelves. For that matter, little drifts of books stacked on the floor and almost every flat surface seem to breed in our house. But not all readers become writers, so I ask again, is it nature or nurture?

I don’t know, but the question did strike me a couple of days ago. I was going through some papers of my late father’s and there, between two of the radio scripts he had written long ago, was a copy of my birth announcement.

It’s a simple thing, a plain white piece of paper with black print with a left-hand fold so it opens like a book. On the cover is the image of a book with the title “Janis Susan – Announcing a New Edition – Best Book of the Year.” There is also a picture of a rather startlingly disgruntled looking stork in a top hat and glasses. I always wondered why he had such a peculiar look on his face.

Open the ‘book’ and it says “The Author and Publisher proudly announce the issuance of their 19XX (no, I’m not going to tell you the year!) edition entitled Janis Susan May.”

Below that, it says “Author – Donald W. May – Publisher – Aletha B. May.”

Below that it says “Publication Date – (the date of my birth) – DeLuxe Edition, with pink and white binding weighs X pounds X ounces (I’m not going to tell you that  either, then or now!). Cover jacket – white, removable. Reprints and Second Editions not available this year.”

See? I was doomed from the beginning. Nature or nurture makes no difference, for when one’s beginning of life is announced as a book, one really has no choice but to become a writer.

In the for what it’s worth department, my father did the announcement himself. He had a telling wit and I personally think the concept hilarious. My sentimentalist mother loathed it and, once recovered from her ordeal, sent out very proper handwritten announcements herself, probably confusing a lot of people as to whether the Mays had had one child or two.

Sometimes, knowing the many dichotomies of my nature, I wonder that myself. But then, I am a writer.