The Question of the Victim

One of the first ideas that come to me when I begin a novel or short story is the identity of the villain. As soon as the basic scene takes shape, the victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.

The selection of both victim and villain allow me to explore various questions, but in the beginning I was mostly interested in mastering the form and telling a particular kind of story.

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In the cozy mystery, the victim tends to be “the person we love to hate,” the obnoxious neighbor or underhanded business partner, especially the philandering husband or the domineering departmental supervisor. No one misses them, or is sad to see them go. In my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, Beth O’Donnell made everyone cringe with her sarcastic and cutting remarks, a bully though diminutive in every other way. With the victim neatly dispatched emotionally for the audience, the reader concentrates on those around her. But as the series progressed I wanted the victim to play a more complicated role.

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Setting a murder mystery in an exotic location (to us, the outsiders) offers new possibilities, and I took the opportunity to present a victim who was admired and mourned. Jean is an American nurse traveling through India on her way to Burma, or Myanmar, with a plan to be smuggled in to work in a clandestine clinic in the jungle. This will be her second trip, and she has come prepared with medicine and equipment. Who would want to kill her and thwart her humanitarian work? In Under the Eye of Kali, Jean disappears and is later found dead. Her openness about her plans seems to suggest smugglers or ordinary thieves could be the culprits. We care more about who the villain is because we care more about Jean.

Below the Tree Line

In the first Pioneer Valley entry, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien finds a young woman she’s only met once dead in her woods. This is the first of two deaths, neither of which fall into the category of expected victims. The reader has no reason to hate either woman, and the convenient category of the cozy victim has no role here. There can be no ambiguity about the death of either woman, and thus no pleasure in the reader at the elimination of an odious character.

The choice of victim tells the reader several things, but mostly what our own values are as we come to know the character and gradually discern the shape of his or her life. We conveniently agree that the obnoxious victim in the cozy got what he or she deserved; we admire the sleuth who tracks down the killer of a virtuous person risking her life for others; and we agree there can be no justification for killing an innocent person.

Crime fiction or mystery fiction opens for discussion and exploration our basic principles and beliefs. In Modus Operandi, Robin Winks, the late reviewer of and writer about this genre, was eloquent on this point. “Ultimately one reads detective fiction because it involves judgments—judgments made, passed upon, tested. In raising questions about purpose, it raises questions about cause and effect. In the end, like history, such fiction appears to, and occasionally does, decode the environment; appears to and occasionally does tell one what to do; appears to and occasionally does set the record straight. Setting the record straight ought to matter.”

One Writer’s Thoughts on the Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

This post was supposed to be about setting, but while I was working on my current project I came to a scene in which the character had undergone a significant change. I wondered how to present this. Should I explain the loss of the job as the result of the Covid-19 lockdown? Or should I just leave it as an ordinary layoff? I posed the question as a general one on my FB page and as of this writing 24 writers have made comments. I’m not the only one thinking about this issue.

One of the strengths of crime fiction, and traditional mysteries in particular, is the precise way authors describe a world. Crime fiction is dependent on an accurate presentation of reality, even when that reality is far-fetched–from the deadly allergy to the fragrance of roses to the importance of the tides. We look for this in our favorite books whatever the subgenre. You may think about the yarn shop where a charming owner gives knitting lessons–to the reader as well as the characters, with knitting instructions at the end. Or perhaps you prefer the cooking mysteries with recipes and menus. I enjoy these too but in this instance I’m thinking about something less obvious but equally significant for the story.

Over fifty-five years, Agatha Christie set many of her mysteries in English villages, so richly described that even now many of us Anglophiles still think of a Christie or Miss Marple village as the definition of English country life. But this would be only half the picture. Christie depicted the world she lived in, and then added a murder and an amateur sleuth. Her sleuths and murders weren’t realistic but her descriptions of the village was. So much so that we can read her mysteries to study the historic changes in English rural life. The tidy village streets with modest homes radiating out from the center are soon dotted with high-rises for low-income and lavish homes for the newly rich after World War Two. The farmers and tradespeople are soon joined by British civil servants and military back from the outer reaches of the Empire and immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia. She would not have set a book in 1943 and failed to mention the war, nor would a story set between the wars have been complete without a Colonel somewhere in the mix. She used technology as do we, relying on one in particular in her most famous novel.

The pandemic of 2020 will fold itself into history, just as 9/11 has, but it would be foolish to think that readers won’t recognize these dates if they show up in a story. If we ignore the changes the disease is making to our daily lives, will our stories be anachronisms? Can you write a mystery today without recognizing the change in the US population? Reading a novel in any genre in which every character is a WASP would be unbelievable today, and a character’s African-American heritage will not necessarily have anything to do with the plot. In some parts of the country you would be hard-pressed to get through the day without hearing at least one foreign language or seeing a few young people walking down the street with their eyes on their cell phones. These are the details that ground a story and make the world believable.

For some readers the current circumstances are too extreme to explore in literature, and they don’t want to read about it. Plenty of writers don’t want to write about it either. It will probably be several months or even a year before we see the first pandemic stories, but until then each one of us has to decide whether or not to use the new ways of managing day to day life as background for a story or as part of the circumstances determining a crime and its solution. I don’t have the answer and probably won’t have one, at least for me, until I reach the end of my current work. I write in uncertainty, just as today we’re living in it.

 

 

The Writer during a Pandemic by Susan Oleksiw

Recently a number of writers chattered on line about writing a story during the coronavirus pandemic. I haven’t considered it yet, but I have noticed the details that signal the changes to my community, and these would probably appear in anything I wrote.

At first I thought the directions to pull back, self-isolate, etc., would lead to obvious changes, that the world would look startlingly different. But that hasn’t been the case. The world closed in gradually. Stay six-feet away from people; close the schools and study on line; work from home if you can. That all made sense. But the changes were more subtle.

Far fewer cars pass our house, and when I walk in the morning I’m struck by how many cars sit in driveways. They were usually gone by eight, and almost always by nine. Now they’re packed in. The streets are nearly empty, and on the rare day when cars are parked on a side street, I know that someone is ignoring the rules to stay inside and has gone visiting.

Most people I encounter seem to be following the rules; a few are nonchalant, letting masks fall, rubbing their eyes; others are defiant or oblivious. In a doctor’s office, twelve patients sat next to each other because there weren’t enough chairs to sit six feet apart. No one smiled, no one read a magazine, and no one escaped into their cell. People sat rigidly in their seats, keeping an eye on each other. No one sneezed, coughed, sniffled.

One morning a young mother parked on a side street, hustled three children out of her car, and followed them down the street to a house around the corner (no parking on that street). A play date? Home schooling?

To counteract boredom, neighbors organized an art project, setting children to decorate their front doors. The goal is to give them something to do, and demonstrate that the community is working together even though they can’t play with their friends at this time. The dark side of this is the closing of playgrounds, where caution tape around swings makes the point in a different way.

Before the virus, late at night the bright lights of an alarm-silent police car or fire engine might wake me up. But not now. Far fewer police cars and fire engines fly past the house day or night. Throughout the city sirens are mostly silent. This may not mean less crime; perhaps the police have been hit by the virus and fewer men and women are available to answer the call. A 911 call that once took ten minutes three months ago might now take forty. And no cars have been on the road around five or six in the morning. Most workers have no early shifts to get to.

Our main street is shuttered, restaurants closed, few of them doing take-out. The train doesn’t rumble by in the distance at expected times; the schedule has been changed to a weekend schedule except for an increase in early morning trains to get workers into the city for the early shift change at medical centers.

The newspaper arrives, the trash is picked up, grocery stores are reasonably well stocked. But in all, the salad bar, fruit bar, and soup bar are closed, and in some stores all vegetables are now wrapped. No one gets to choose how many green beans she wants, or how many shallots. The bakery no longer puts out a tray of pieces of a new cake or cookie for customers to try.

These are the obvious changes. The less obvious are the more dangerous, and those arising from people who flout the governor’s directives are even worse. A husband who has threatened his wife before is confined with her in a small home in the woods. Young children in a family with an older brother who bullies them have no way to escape. A landlord who cares little for his tenants’ problems quotes the president announcing the situation is under control; time to go back to work and pay rent. A small business owner dependent on crafts made and supplied by women working at home takes in inventory–and resells it without keeping records. A woman who turns sixty-five in a month can’t reach any of her utilities to fight a shut-off notice.

These are real situations whose danger is amplified by our unusual circumstances in winter 2020. These are the stories we’ll write some day.

Setting and Its Limitations

One of the most interesting features of any mystery novel for me is the setting. Create a world of rich details and the story seems to unfold naturally. In the draft of one story I used a setting that I had seen but not walked through. A Beta reader asked basic questions about the distance between two points, the nature of the trail between them, and more. It was a signal to me that the setting wasn’t clear. And how could it be? I hadn’t been there, walked through the area, taken note of crucial features.

Today I find myself at the other end of that continuum for setting. I’m working on a mystery novel set on a small island linked to the coast by a tidal causeway, and home to varied flora and fauna. The location is based on an island I know fairly well, having visited it numerous times in my earlier years. The only significant change I’ve made is in size–I’ve reduced the island from over eighty acres to about ten, and moved it closer to the mainland. I’ve borrowed the causeway from another part of the shore farther down the coast. I’ve chosen this site because of certain activities that can only happen in this kind of isolated setting, and because I know it fairly well. I’m also working into the plot a specific time–using the sunrise, moonrise, and tides as crucial factors.

In most stories the writer can adjust the crucial elements such as the time a train arrives, the time of high tide or low tide, the seasonal winds, and more according to the needs of the story. With my decision to use a specific month, I’ve chosen to work within a specific set of parameters. I want this grounding because the story is going to hinge on what is or is not possible according to the setting.

Consider the range in tides. In some parts of the world the range between high and low tide is minimal, and even the range between high tides is minuscule, as is the case in Southern India, which is fairly close to the equator. With an almost even twelve hours of daylight throughout the year, the tides are similarly even throughout the day. But the Bay of Fundy, located at latitude 45, has the highest range between high and low tides on earth, forty-three feet. At most places on earth the range is about three feet. I’ve chosen a location in which the range between high tides in one month is up to almost two feet.

I don’t think the area for my story is particularly exotic. But in exploring the details of the setting–sunrise, moonrise, tidal range and more–I have uncovered details that suggest specific clues and turns for the plot, features in a story particular to the setting.

When writers talk about setting, we are often thinking of a different kind of influence, such as the kind of people who might live in a rural area surrounded by forests or farms; the tight-knit community in a tenement building trying to stave off developers; or perhaps the mix of people riding on a train that is caught in a blizzard. In my current story I’m tying the crime and its solution more tightly to the earth, to the specific environment not exactly replicated anywhere else. I’m in the early stages at the moment, so I’m looking forward to how this is all going to work out.

 

A Thousand Thanks

Recently a fellow writer, Jacqueline Seewald, posted an article written by a mystery reader in response to one of her short stories. Along with several others, I commented that this was a gratifying response from a reader, and then I got thinking.

I began writing and publishing mysteries and mystery related articles, reviews, essays over thirty years ago, and to be singled out by a reader for praise is always a thrill. Like any other writer, I want readers to enjoy my work. The number of mystery-related conferences spread throughout the year and scattered around the US and the rest of the world means we are often thrown into contact with current and future (and sometimes past) readers. Both of us—writers and readers—have learned to take this in stride. I make note of which characters a reader liked particularly, a question about a character’s backstory, or hints at a new series or a new direction. But fans don’t have to wait for a conference to find us.

Writers get emails through our websites or blogs, posts on other blogs about a meeting or a particular story, or conversation about a book club. Readers can engage almost any writer on FB or Twitter, on Goodreads or other sites. Writing may be a solitary business, but the readership is ever present. Writers and readers almost can’t avoid meeting each other and engaging in an ongoing conversation. For most of those writing today, this is the norm and always has been. But not for me.

When my first mystery was published, Murder in Mellingham(1993), I was thrilled to have a book launch at Kate’s Mystery Books and meet other writers and readers. After this I attended Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, and met lots of other writers including those I’d never expected to meet in person let alone speak to or have dinner with. It was quite an experience.

But nothing since then has matched the first piece of mail (yes, snail mail) I received from a fan. I was a newbie, still very little known, but a man who read my mystery took the time to write to tell me how much a specific passage had moved him. He had recently lost his mother, and that one line seemed a particular comfort. I’d never received this kind of letter before (And why would I? This was my first mystery.) and barely managed to write a coherent reply.

I remember that letter because it took time to compose, write on paper, address, stamp, and send (and came through my publisher, as I recall) and was very personal. Of all the warm and enthusiastic responses I’ve had from readers, that one is still the one I remember. Did Jacqueline Seewald feel as excited about her reader’s response? Of course she did. Do younger writers who may never have taken to letter writing feel the same way, I wonder, about email notes from readers telling them how much they liked a book? I’m sure they do. But for me, a letter in the mail will always be the ultimate form of communication.

For the article inspired by Jacqueline Seewald’s story, go to: https://jacquelineseewald.blogspot.com/2020/01/how-readers-relate-to-fiction.html?

The Neglected Senses

In the middle of my current WIP I noticed that once again I’d fallen prey to my particular weakness in writing. I’m not the only one with this flaw but I have been working on correcting it. What is it? The tendency is something so obvious that I even wondered if I should write about it at all, but here it is. Despite all my workshops in which I encourage students to use all their senses when writing, I make the same mistake. I focus on the visual and sometimes the auditory and neglect the senses of taste and smell. (And in the above sentence I didn’t even mention the sense of touch.)

Writers are visual people. We tend to describe the landscape or an interior setting in great detail. We note clothing, especially as it indicates class or wealth, and physical mannerisms especially if they indicate emotional states or character. We tease out special feelings as two people become aware of each other, or we cogitate on clues, drawing the reader into the intricate web of evil. We feel the weather on our faces, our skin under a spring shower, or our fingers in thin gloves going numb in the cold. But we rarely catch a whiff of anything that matters–a lingering scent of a person we dislike or are suspicious of, a dinner of capons and carrots that distract us from a conversation we should be listening to.

In a recent mystery the protagonist enters a strange home where he will be staying and is visibly struck by the level of poverty of the village and the neglect in the home, but this is all visual. Poverty has a smell, and neglect has another smell. Because we don’t emphasize these experiences in our day-to-day lives, they may be harder to describe, but they are vivid for us when we undergo them.

When I’m confronted with a scene in which I want the olfactory sense to be dominant, I recall such experiences, usually around food but not always, and draw on those. These moments are never without people in them. I know these moments are important because I remember them so vividly, partly because of the unusual or captivating tastes and partly because of the environment or setting in which they occur and without which they would not.

During my first week in India, in 1976, I met a social worker who invited me to tea at her apartment. She was about my age, wearing a sweater over her sari (it was January in North India, which can get very chilly), and lived in an attractive two-bedroom apartment, small by Western standards but quite comfortable. She explained she was able to get this flat because of her occupation. (I’ve since learned that the job title Social Worker is closer to our Human Resources Director.) We sat on a small veranda/balcony for tea. Her maidservant (at that time, everyone in India had a maidservant, even the poor) brought in a plate of cheeses and samosas. The slice of cheese had been rolled in flour and dry roasted. I don’t know what kind of cheese, what flour, or what spices were used but to this day I remember this as one of the most succulent, delightful tastes my tongue has ever known.

When I walk through my neighborhood I sometimes notice a particular perfume and know that a certain woman has taken her afternoon walk. The fragrance isn’t strong in the usual sense but it does linger, and usually on the main street, rarely on side streets. Another aroma that still stands out is a cleaning material used mainly in Asia but starting to show up here. It was startling to encounter it in a store in New Hampshire until I remembered that this was an Asian grocery store.

All of these experiences remind me of how powerful taste and smell are in my life, and how effective they can be in deepening a mystery or adding to the description of a scene. One of my goals of the novel I’m currently working on is to use more of these two senses in the solution of the mystery as well as in the vividness of the story telling.

 

 

The Ones I Keep

Still on my bookshelf are books that I loved as a child: . . . And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold, The Fur Person by May Sarton, and Asian stories. But one day in my teen years I came across a book my mother purchased for herself, by a man everyone in town knew. Some books have an inexplicable pull on us because of what they teach us, and this is one in my life.

John Leggett worked in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s before moving back to New York City and a job in publishing; he had always wanted to write. He and his wife were well known in the small town where I grew up. They and their three sons lived a few houses away from us, and my best friend at the time babysat for the boys. Sometimes, usually in the summer, I kept her company. We walked to the small beach nearby, or passed a quiet afternoon at home. I don’t remember the boys being particularly rambunctious.

His second novel, The Gloucester Branch, published in 1964, was read by all in town largely because of its local setting. I had read his first book some years earlier, much to my mother’s dismay, and expected to like his second. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and had already published one essay. I was only months away from writing my first short story.

The first news I had of Leggett’s second book was a spirited discussion among my parents’ friends about the title. One insisted it was bad because no one outside of the Boston area would recognize it. The Gloucester branch was the name of the B&M line that ran out to Cape Ann. The debate raged. Next came the characterization of the protagonist’s wife. I can still hear one woman saying, “That’s Mary to a tee. Why didn’t he disguise her better?” All of this whetted my appetite for the novel, and I dove in. I recognized the house the fictional family lived in, the streets they walked, even some of the minor characters (or so I thought). I read avidly from page one to the end.

Most writers I’ve talked to mention a well-known title or author as seminal in their development, usually someone I’ve read or at least heard of. When I think back, of course I can list numerous titles by important writers that swept me away, inspired me, and linger even now. So why do I remember a little-known writer of the last century? Why not remember another, better-known book of the same period: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Herzog (1964), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), or any of the classics I read during that decade?

John Leggett never achieved great fame, though he ran the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and mentored a long list of award-winning writers. From there he moved on to California to become head of another writing program. He never became a household name outside of my hometown.

But in reading his novel The Gloucester Branch, I could see exactly what he had done, how he had taken real life and reshaped it, added twists and enhanced details to layer on meaning where there had been none or only the dull quotidian. I recognized the details, understood the changes he wrought, and appreciated the result. No other work of fiction had given me the same insight perhaps because no other had been so transparent in its reshaping of reality into story. Many books inspired me to write, tell a better story, or invent a richer character. But only one opened the window onto the simple transformations made by a writer’s mind.