A Mystery Writer’s Responsibility

by Janis Patterson

We write mysteries. It is our duty to provide our readers with a good story that has an interesting plot, accurate research, believable characters, and a satisfying ending.

It is also our responsibility to be sure that in our quest for interesting and different content we don’t turn our fictional books into training manuals. Yes, we want ways of death that rise above the common and usually sordid killings that regularly adorn our daily news, but we must walk a fine line between creating an interesting fictional killing and providing an instructional blueprint for a real one.

I think this duty of responsibility is why in so many early mysteries and in a few current ones the murder weapon is a common blunt instrument or some exotic, untraceable poison, though exotic, unknown and untraceable poisons are currently somewhat out of vogue. Current mysteries seem to be grounded much more in reality than the ones from the so-called Golden Age.

To illustrate my point, years ago I attended my first NRA convention. (By the way, if your mysteries involve firearms, I cannot recommend highly enough that you attend one – the knowledge and help there are phenomenal! It will be in Dallas next month and I definitely intend on going! I’ll probably be blogging about it.) I talked to a lot of people, getting all kinds of information and contacts for my reference file (you do have a reference file, don’t you?) when I talked to this one man who was simply entranced that I was a mystery writer. Normally I’ve found that people just love to help writers, but this guy was totally over the top. He had worked both as a firearms salesman and in a ballistics lab, and among a lot of other things gleefully told me the way to have a ballistically clean bullet. No striations. No rifling. No marks on the projectile to tell which or even what kind of gun it came from. No information except the caliber. Nothing that law enforcement could trace.

I listened intently, partially fascinated and partially revolted. It was a simple process and could be done by anyone with the IQ of a goldfish. Then he asked if I’d use it in one of my books – obviously hoping that I’d put him in there too. Horrified, I said most certainly not, begged him not to tell this process to anyone else and then explained why. He was suddenly as horrified as I – apparently he had never thought that what he regarded as an interesting curiosity could actually be used to commit a real-life untraceable killing.

And no, don’t ask me what the secret is. I destroyed that part of my notes and have deliberately forgotten how. There is some knowledge that should never be shared.

So while killing people made of pixels can be both fun and profitable, we as writers owe our readers and the world in general a sense of restraint and responsibility. I truly believe that none of us would actually use some of the stuff we know to do harm to others, but we must never forget that our stories are read by all kinds of people, some of whom might wish to do harm or even read us in search of ways to do harm. Never forget that we want to entertain, not instruct. I don’t think any of us want to be an accomplice.

Constructing Clues

by Janis Patterson

I think we all agree that when creating a mystery we should play fair with our readers. Mixed in amongst our red herrings there should be some genuine clues that – with an astute reader and a little bit of luck – can be used to solve the case.

Playing fair, however, does not always involve playing nice. For example, what if it is determined that the killer is left handed, and there are two left-handed people in the suspect pool. Pretty much makes it a slam-dunk, doesn’t it? Or does it? What if our sleuth finds that one of the suspect pool is ambidextrous? Ah, now that complicates things.

I believe that until pretty much the end of the book there should be at least two rational, provable solutions to the case. Nothing is more boring than knowing by the third chapter who the criminal is and wondering why the sleuth cannot see it. Once that almost-the-end-of-the-book point is reached, however, there should be a clue or event that makes it clear to the fictional sleuth and the mystery is solved. Whether the author cares to make it obvious to the reader or not before the sleuth reveals all depends on the story and the voice of the author. In a truly great mystery, the reader will go ‘Ah! Of course!’ and suddenly the entire action of the crime is painfully obvious to the reader, step by step. All the clues are there, in plain sight, but the reader has not put them together.

I never said it would be easy.

As for realistic villains… First, there can only be one villain… or not. One of the best mysteries I ever read had two villains, working in concert while seemingly disconnected on the surface. Each had an alibi for at least half the incidents so neither could be considered suspects and the two had no obvious connection to each other. Only two small clues linked them together, and one was a red herring, but the real one was out there in the open and available to all. I had to read the book twice, making a special effort to note the clues the sleuth had pointed out before I could admit that it really was so simple… and so obvious.

Another thing about clues is that they should be reasonably accessible to the modern reader. I remember an early Ellery Queen (whom I adore) where the clue that solved the mystery was tied to a knowledge of the Phoenician alphabet. I mean – really? The Phoenician alphabet?? Who knows the Phoenician alphabet? If one did, the clue was fairly obvious, but really…

One thing that makes me wild – and which makes me throw a book against the wall and never buy anything from that author again is the clue (or solution) that appears suddenly without warning or reason from far left field. A character never seen or heard of before wanders in and announces the one fact that solves the mystery. That ranks right up there in the list of unacceptable endings with the convenient never-before-heard-of wandering homicidal maniac. Both ‘solutions’ are cheats that deny the reader the chance of solving the mystery himself. Even if the reader doesn’t want to work at solving the mystery, only to read a good story, it isn’t fair to pull the old ‘deus ex machina’ card. It’s cheating, and authors – good authors – should be above such shenanigans.

If you’re going to commit a crime, do it honestly.

Fairy Tales, The Easter Bunny and a New Touchstone

by Janis Patterson

Every year I look forward to the holiday season. I love Christmas – the decorations, the carols, the promise and reassurance of my faith, the bonhomie, the electric excitement in the air. New Year’s is the symbol of new beginnings and though I have never been able to keep a New Year’s resolution for more than a few weeks there is always a clean, untried ‘blank-slate’ feeling to a new year.

Every year I look forward to the end of the holiday season and the return of real life. While wonderful, the holidays are exhausting and pretty much take over your life. Parties to give and attend. Presents to buy. Calls to make. Lunches with friends. Wrapping presents. Visiting family for extended gatherings with out-of-town members. Taking down and putting away decorations. Getting the house back to the familiar chaos we call ‘normal.’ Thank-you notes to write. Yes, it’s tiring, to say the least.

Now we’re eleven days into the New Year, which makes it not so new any more. And, usually after all the holiday hubbub dies down, it’s not so different from the year before. I still have deadlines and stories crying to be written. The laundry pile stays pretty much the same no matter how many loads I do. Since the holiday leftovers are long gone I must contrive something for dinner every night and fix a lunch for The Husband to take to work. Not so different from last year and many years before that.

Still, there is something about the turn of the year – as artificial a delineation of time as it might be – that makes us think. Personally I want to make it a touchstone for upping my career game. A touchstone, not a resolution. Resolutions are usually regarded as hard things, immobile things, things you must do every single day for the rest of the year. I don’t respond well to hard, immobile and must do. Never have, and probably never will.

So what did I do? In between huge meals with family and much-needed naps I spent New Year’s Day thinking about what I wanted to accomplish career-wise in the new year and what it would take to get it done. Of course I thought about a few things that are definitely ‘wish list’ and probably never going to happen, but I did try to keep things ‘real.’

First of all, I know that no matter how much I hate it, I’m going to have to do a lot more publicity. I have an extensive backlist in several genres and yet my sales would have to work for a week to get up to pathetic. It’s all about discoverability, and that means getting your name and your work out there.

For a long time I followed the fairy tale that if your book is good, it will sell. (I refuse to tell you how long I believed in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny…) As nice and tidy as that would be, it doesn’t work. People don’t buy what they can’t see, and well-promoted garbage will pretty much always outsell a good book buried in the ever-increasing tsunami of available books. While a writer can live in the ivory tower and do nothing but write (my personal dream) it’s time for me to realize that if I want to be a selling writer, I need to get out there and sell. The Tooth Fairy has retired.

Neither can you live on your backlist alone. New releases feed the machine. It’s the genre writer’s version of publish or perish. Readers – especially genre readers – are exceptionally voracious, with some reading more than one book a day. Writers can no longer afford the luxury of doing just one book a year if they want to keep their name in front of the reading public.

Last year I wrote five books. This year I have to get them all out. (Last year was an ivory tower year for me for several reasons.) This year I hope to do – and release – four. Remember what I said about a touchstone? I didn’t promise myself or make a resolution to write and release four; that’s too solid, too demanding. During the year when I hit a wall, when my career seems more trap than joy, I’ll think back to that food-stuffed, family-surfeited New Year’s Day and remember what I thought about the forthcoming year. Then I can decide if it is still what I want, still feasible, still relevant to my current reality.

I hope it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. But whatever I decide, though, I have to do what needs to be done to make it come true.

 

 

Tell Me Again – What Time Is It?

by Janis Patterson

One of the most unsettling things about being a writer is what I call ‘time dislocation.’ There is the Now that we are all experiencing – the date printed on today’s calendar, the time shown on all our clock faces. We writers, however, must deal with the Now of our work, which very seldom if ever coincides with real time. For those of us who work on several projects at once – some contemporary, some historical – the dislocation can be severe.

And sometimes the dislocation lapses over into the real Now. As I sit here writing this, I’m preparing for a trip and when you read this I will be in Germany with The Husband, touring the magical Christmas markets of Bavaria. The year he was stationed over there I went over to spend Christmas with him, through weather and scheduling and just plain bad luck I missed seeing any of the markets. He, of course, had been to several and promised me he would take me to some – sometime. It took a couple of years, but on Friday (almost two weeks ago to you) we’re off.

Which brings up another kind of dislocation – weather. It’s cold in Germany, very cold for my Southern bones, especially when we’re going to be walking around outside every night. (Though there is the Gluhwein (hot mulled wine) to look forward to!) I live in North Central Texas… I don’t have many cold weather outfits! Yes, it does get cold here – we do have noteworthy ice storms, but they usually last only a day or two, and we just stay inside until they’re over! I’ve been packing and unpacking and repacking, trying to decide what will (1) be warm enough and (2) will not require a couple of steamer trunks. There is consolation, though; we are not journeying to Ultima Thule… whatever my final wardrobe choices lack can easily be remedied with a quick pass through a local store.

Even with all the preparatory kerfuffle I am looking forward to the trip for two reasons. First of all, I’m going on a very romantic trip with a man I adore. That should be enough – and would be – but secondly I am also a very firm believer that everything can be turned to research. I’ve been thinking about the second book in my Dr. Rachel Petrie series of archaeological mysteries, and Germany is rich in archaeological sites. We’ll be doing the tourist thing during the day, so I’m going to take LOTS of notes.

Which brings up a problem. I learned to type the summer before I entered the fourth grade, so have always regarded anything more than a signature on a check as cruel and unusual punishment. And this is the first time in thirty odd years that I have ever taken more than an overnight visit anywhere without bringing along a typewriter or a computer. We’re going to be moving light and fast on this trip, and hoping to bring home a lot of goodies, so The Husband convinced me that this trip I wouldn’t have luggage space for a computer or tablet… or even time to use them. I have agreed not to take anything more than a purse-sized notebook and a pen or two… but I feel naked.

However… as I have been known to say repeatedly, Writers Write. We write the best way we can, and if that means a pad and pen, that will have to do. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember exactly when Now is! Any of them.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

What is “Real”?

by Janis Patterson

Writing is a time consuming occupation. Not only do we have to spend time plotting, thinking, and constructing our stories, we spend time putting them into a concrete form and then making them as polished a form as we possibly can. Then – if we want respectable sales – we must spend egregious amounts of time doing publicity and interacting with our readers.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, it ain’t.

It wouldn’t be easy even if life didn’t intrude. Writers have families and jobs and lives, to say nothing of accidents and incidents and attacks of the unexpected. There are writing gurus who say you must write every day for a certain amount of time. That’s great, if your life allows and that works for you. I’m certain that somewhere there is someone who does this, but I don’t know any.

So what do we do? My answer is, the best we can. It’s not only a matter of time management, it’s a matter of priorities. When your granddaughter is in a life-threatening accident your focus should not be on writing. When the laundry reaches Matterhorn proportions or your living room needs dusting, that is no excuse not to write. (Of course, The Husband says I take that last dictum much too much to heart, and lately he has started muttering about finding a sharecropper for the parlor.)

The question devolves down to : Are you a writer or a hobbyist? Assuming that there is nothing life-altering going on (dust does not count) you have to decide just how important writing is to you.

In my case, it’s very important. I am a professional novelist, and a few days ago finished my fifth book this year. Because of this job, I miss shopping expeditions and luncheons with girlfriends, theatre trips and even some family gatherings – as tempting as such frivols sound – and have to plan my books around the trips The Husband and I make. (And I have never journeyed anywhere in the last decade that a laptop or tablet did not go with me!)

I also have a life. While I am blessed not to have to have a regular-in-an-office job, there are still lots of things that must be done. Groceries must be bought and eventually cooked. Pets must go to the vet. The car must be attended to. Extended family needs attention. The minutiae of living must go on, whether you work outside the home or not. My family is very important to me, as is my activism for animal welfare and conservative causes. The Husband’s happiness is always paramount in my priorities, and there is no way either he or I will ever give up our interest in and studies of Ancient Egypt and the Civil War. Health issues also raise their ugly heads from time to time.

But I am a writer, and after the really important things – family, beliefs, home – writing comes first, before nearly all social events, before frivols, before self-indulgences. Most self-indulgences. Some of my friends become insulted when I cannot go to lunch or take the afternoon off to go shopping, though they would never have such a reaction if I worked a 9-to-5 in an office. It’s disheartening to think that after all this time so many people still think that if you work from home you don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re a self-employed writer, you still don’t have a ‘real’ job… Or that if you’re self-publishing and don’t have a big contract with a major publisher you really don’t have a ‘real’ job. After all, aren’t all self-published writers just wanna-bes or hobbyists who couldn’t get a ‘real’ publisher?

Yes, I have heard almost those exact words from people who are otherwise intelligent and sophisticated. Some of them I have given up trying to convince that I do have a ‘real’ job. Some truly do equate writing with lounging around, tossing off X number of words in a string, having them published immediately and then sitting back while unbelievable riches roll in.

Don’t we all wish!

Mind Games and Murder

by Janis Patterson

I wonder if all mystery writers are irretrievably warped?

I spent last week at the Novelists’ Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. It was held at the luxurious TradeWinds resort, a place of which dreams are made. The weather was good – a little rain, a lot of wind, but mostly warm and sunny. The resort amenities are incredible – this is our fourth time here and I still haven’t been able to do all the ‘resorty’ things I want to, such as going down the big slide and doing the paddle boats on the carefully maintained artificial creek or sing at karaoke night. (I’m not lazy – it’s just the conference is so intense and it’s so wonderful to be able just to sit and talk with other writers.)

The resort is perfection, and the staff works hard to keep it that way. (And I’m positive none of my dire imaginings have ever happened there in reality – it is a lovely place in every sense of the word.) I mean, even the brick walks are swept several times a day to keep the beach sand off. Everywhere you look there are staff members in their trademark blue and yellow Hawaiian style shirts going around making things perfect, just like little elves. The restaurants and bars are great and to get up early in the morning and watch from our balcony as the day is born to the music of the surf is heavenly.

So why are my thoughts swamped with murder and mayhem? You’d think I would just be enjoying the conference and my friends and the beauty, but no – so  far I’ve hatched a bunch of plots that involve poisoning, stabbing, international intrigue and smuggling, all located in this consciously perfect setting.

Violence and crime are terrible no matter where they occur, but it seems they are worse in places of such beauty and perfection, and therefore more alluring to the mystery writer. The vast number of employees, each in their yellow and blue Hawaiian shirts, are an invitation to a villainous outsider outsider to use the uniform as camouflage. After all, with the exception of our chambermaid, I don’t think I’ve seen the same employee twice.

Am I the only one who looks at the minutiae of life through such a murderous lens? In an arboretum full of beautiful plants I am drawn to the poisonous ones. In an art museum I find myself thinking not of the beautiful paintings, but of what a wonderful place it would be to hide a body. A shopping mall? Just too full of murderous opportunities to list.

People often ask me where I get my ideas – or, worse, offer to sell me theirs. Getting the ideas is not the problem; most of the creative people I know have many more than they can ever use. The problem is deciding which idea to use – and it takes a bunch that fit together seamlessly to make a good book. The bad part is that you can only fit so many widely different murders into one book!

Worst of all, when you are surrounded by such beauty and comfort and perfection the urge to indulge in a little villainous mayhem is far too much to resist. I think I’ve decided on smuggling… or maybe jealousy… or perhaps a disputed inheritance… as the inciting incident. Check with me next  year and we’ll see how the story turned out!

Privacy, Responsibility and General Robert E. Lee

by Janis Patterson

On this and other blogs I have always ranted about the necessity of a writer for privacy, of how we shouldn’t have to open ourselves and our personal lives up just because our fans want us to or because we need the publicity. Privacy is very important to me and always has been. Some say that by being too open, or too outspoken on social media we run the risk of losing or even alienating fans, and that is a distinct possibility. No sane person wants to damage their career deliberately. For some reason writers – especially genre fiction writers – are not supposed to be controversial. Mean people who disagree with us, we are warned, will flock to our retailers and give nothing but bad reviews in an attempt to hurt us and complain about our attacking their freedom of speech if we complain.

That sounds more like bullying than freedom of speech.

However, there are things which supercede a career. We have all been counseled to be quiet or at the most neutral about some things, politics and religion primarily. That’s good advice, but I think we are human beings and citizens first, and some things trump both the career and neutrality cards.

I live in Dallas, which is controlled by a very liberal mayor and city council – all of whom are bound and determined to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee that has been standing for over 80 years – all in a rush of indecent and (in my opinion) barely-legal haste. The powers that be had a crane ready to dismantle the statue within minutes of the council’s vote. (After over 80 years in the same place it suddenly had to be removed THAT AFTERNOON? Sounds like something’s fishy to me.) Had not my wonderful husband rushed to file a Temporary Restraining Order we would have lost an incredible work of art. The statue (or as the council member spearheading this idiocy calls it, the ‘statcha’) is one of the finest examples of heroic-sized bronze art in the country. Whoever/whatever the statue (statcha) represents, the fine detail work, the intricate delineations, the entire piece is exquisite and to take such a work of fine art out of the beautiful park setting created for it decades ago and probably out of public view forever is just plain heinous.

But that’s not the worst. Dallas is a perpetually cash-strapped city where (among other things) it can take months to get a pothole repaired, and where over 400 policemen quit the force last year because of the poor pay and a very shaky, poorly managed pension fund. Even with such financial problems the mayor and the city council simply cannot wait to pay over (and maybe a LOT over) $400,000 just to remove the statue. One statue. And that’s when even the liberal media admits that over 80% of Dallas citizens want the statue (and all such monuments) left alone.

How can I as a tax-paying citizen of this city stand still for such deliberate fiscal irresponsibility? How can I remain silent when our tax dollars are being wasted so egregiously? How can I ignore it when the city is always complaining that they don’t have enough money and say our taxes should go up yet again but our services always seem to shrink? When I think of how that almost HALF A MILLION dollars (and probably more before all is said and done) could be spent on paying our police the salaries they should have, or putting after-school enrichment programs in underprivileged schools, or creating some health-care storefronts in the poorest areas of town, or…

There are so many ways that money could be used constructively, and as a citizen I must raise my voice in spite of the wisdom that says writers should not offend anyone, that stating what you feel or believe or espouse can damage your career. I am not so naïve as to believe that there are not people who will judge my stories by my activism, even though those stories have nothing to do with it. Frankly, I don’t care. I was a human being before I was a writer, and I will be a human being after I quit being a writer.

I have a conscience. I have a voice, and I should have a say about what affects me, be it a statue or a tax increase or a mis-managed pension fund or whatever! After all, it is my hard-earned tax money that the powers that be want to squander so idiotically. I love writing, and I love my career, but life is more important than selling books. If we do not stand up for what is right, for the love of fine art and the integrity of history, for freedom of expression, we have no right to complain when things go wrong. That’s why I’ve spent days urging people to telephone or email the mayor and the city council to stop this attack on freedom, fine art, history and the will of the people.

Plus, my most recent exercise in activism is self-serving, and I believe all writers should applaud. Everything offends someone, so if a small minority can dictate – for no real reason other than they don’t like it – the removal of a statue that the majority wants left alone, how long will it be before they start burning the books they don’t like? Or destroying the art?  And after books and art, what next? People?

Remember, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.