Managing the Timeline

One of the features of a mystery that can be hard to pin down is the timeline. Right now I’m reading stories submitted for the first title of the new Best New England Crime Stories series to be published by Crime Spell Books, and one of the stories has a major problem in the timeline. I read through the story enjoying the characters, caught up in the setting, and satisfied with the end—until it dawned on me that the main clue happened after the important incident. The writer had muddled the sequence of events.

Most of us have heard the saying “Time is fluid,” and many of us have experienced the truth of that statement. Add to that the unreliability of memory, and you can see the problem. (This morning I thought it was Sunday and was shocked at how thin the Sunday paper was—a truly tragic shrinking of the Boston Globe.) A good story idea—strong characters, quick pace, good twists—can fall apart if the time line is not carefully worked out. It’s important to track the time.

The best advice may also be the most basic, so basic in fact that we sometimes forget to mention it. Let the reader know at the opening of every chapter and every scene exactly where she is. Does the opening signal a new day? Make it simple but precise: “The following morning, even though it was Saturday, Emily went to work as usual.” Is it a change in time of day? “After four hours at her desk staring at a screen, her eyes tearing up, Emily felt she was entitled to a lunch break—a long one.” Has a week passed? “The following Saturday things were no better, and Emily was still dragging herself into the office to keep up with the piles of busy-work her boss kept dropping on her desk—on his way out for a shortened work day. Emily was beginning to hate even the word golf.” 

Some writers can finesse this level of detail but when I reread their fiction I find they are clear in their own minds where they are and thus it is clear in the reader’s mind how things are progressing. It shows in the story development. You as writer have to know where the characters are or the reader won’t know.

When I’m working on a story long or short I keep track of important details on lined paper (you can use note cards or a spreadsheet or Scrivener—it doesn’t matter) of each chapter and scene. In the left-hand margin I note the time for each chapter or scene; then I note the activity of that scene. I need to know who said what to whom but just as importantly when. Introducing the back story has come to mean for me a new scene or chapter, but the change in time or setting has to be just as clear. “Emily hadn’t expected this level of drudgery when Hank hired her. She remembered that smile, and from the interview she expected a higher-level position. Had it only been three months?”

I may muddle these all together in a draft but as I revise I tease out each time change and make it explicit. When I can see the progression in time and place in my notes I have a better sense of how the story is developing. Do I need to add a twist? “Emily was warned by a co-worker not to complain—the last woman who did so had a terrible car accident and hasn’t worked since.” Have I spent too long on building up the conflict? “Emily remembered the first time Hank asked her to pick up his dry cleaning and the snide glances of the women who worked in the shop.” If the time moves forward in the backstory that needs to be marked also. “But the kicker, the proverbial straw, for Emily was when Hank asked her three weeks ago to pick up a gift at a women’s shop and rewrap it for him. She assumed it was for his wife. But in the box she was startled to find a negligee not in his wife’s size. That did it for Emily. It was time to take action.”

When I’m finished with the first draft I have a clear sense of pacing and direction. I can see easily if I’ve spent too long on moving forward instead of arriving at my destination. Crafting a clear timeline helps with character development (have I spent too much time or not enough on introducing someone?) and pacing (did I put Emily in enough danger, threatening her job security and her own safety before she chooses to act?), as well as keeping me clear on where I’ve been and when. 

A good, clear timeline will ensure I will end up where I want to be. And now, it’s all up to Emily.

After publishing the first four Anita Ray mysteries, my publisher ended its mystery line. For many writers the transition to being a hybrid author was easy, but for me it was fraught with frustrations. I moved on to writing another series based in the US and not South India, and limited my work on the India series to putting the first three books into trade paperbacks. That’s about to change.

The fifth Anita Ray has been sitting on my desk (almost literally) for over a year while I focus on other stories (short and novel length), but the time has come. In Sita’s Shadow continues the story of Anita and her Auntie Meena and their hotel guests, who arrive as a large tour (large for Hotel Delite) and take over the little converted home.

Anita Ray and her aunt have a small group of devoted followers who occasionally ask me about the next book. I reply as any ambivalent writer might, mentioning a work in progress, other demands, and lots of mumbling. But the time has come and my ambivalence is once again being challenged.

I am not Indian. My love affair with Asia, and India in particular, began when I was young, a preteen, and continued through high school, college, and into graduate school. I was fortunate enough to live there for a year in 1976 and again in 1981-1982, while writing my dissertation and later doing research. With a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian studies, I’m always eager to learn ore. I’ve returned for monthlong visits almost every year since 1999, but that stopped in 2014 for family medical reasons. 

In the advancing twenty-first century, writers are less likely to tell a story through the mind and heart of a character outside their own personal history and ethnic experience. This is unfortunate because the imagination opens doors—it doesn’t close them—to our understanding of the human experience, and the more we stretch ourselves, the more we grow and the more we have to share with others. When I’m reading a well-written and well-thought-out mystery, I never think about who the author is in relation to the cultural identity of the protagonist or any other character in the story. The story is all that matters to me.

By this spring Anita Ray will once again be chasing down a murderer at Hotel Delite (really, it’s a wonder they still have any business at all, considering the body count) and coping with Auntie Meena’s anxieties over her niece’s unmarried state and shameful obsession with murder. 

As the TV announcer used to say, Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

A Regional Anthology Continues

Last year, in 2020, Level Best Books announced that it would no longer publish its annual anthology of stories about New England, and would instead focus on its mystery novel line. Everyone who had ever been involved with the anthology was disappointed. The annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology was a much-loved collection, but it had changed over the years. One aspect that remained constant, however, was publication of the winner of the Al Blanchard Award.

The crime fiction world offers lots of anthologies for readers, so the end of one was sad, but the loss of the publication of the Al Award winner seemed a huge loss. Leslie Wheeler, who has been chairing the award committee for years, was especially concerned, and trying to figure out what to do about that drove early discussions among several of us until all of a sudden three of us had signed on to continue the anthology—Ang Pompano, Leslie Wheeler, and myself.

Best New England Crime Stories will be published by our new press, Crime Spell Books, and will include only short fiction by New England authors. 

A little history is in order here. In 1993 Kate Flora, Skye Alexander, and I founded Level Best Books to publish an anthology of crime fiction by New England authors. When Skye moved to Texas, Ruth McCarty took her place. Eventually we passed the LBB on to another group, Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler. After several years they passed LBB on to a group around DC, associated with Malice Domestic. They changed the requirements to stories set in New England by writers living anywhere, not only in the six New England states. 

Crime Spell Books intends to return to the original parameters—stories by writers living primarily in New England (we admit that some of our favorite writers escape New England winters by moving south; we’re jealous but forgive them the error of their ways). Regional anthologies occupy an important place in the world of fiction—opening up one region to readers in another. A good anthology presents a sufficiently varied group of stories to take the reader deep into the territory but also an assemblage of characters closely related enough to give the reader the feel of a novel, an immersion in a way of thinking and living.

We know that many writers who appeared in earlier volumes will be disappointed—unless, of course, they move here. But we are excited to focus on New England authors. Over the years LBB published many first stories by writers now well established and well known. We want to continue that tradition of giving new writers a strong start while also supporting other writers well known and not so well known. Look for our first anthology, Bloodroot, coming in November 2021.

Yes, I forgot . . . by Susan Oleksiw

This post is late because, well, I forgot. But I’m in good company. 

My daily newspaper hasn’t arrived for the last four mornings, though one arrived late in the afternoon. This seems to happen every year, right after I send them a check to thank them for their very reliable delivery the rest of the year.

Every year my husband and I pick out a tree about two weeks before Christmas, but this year all the trees were gone by then. Not even a live tree (in a root ball) could be had. So we bought what was meant to be an urn tree, and so we have the smallest tree we’ve ever had. I rather like it—easy to maneuver, easy to decorate, and easy to move back outdoors for the rest of the winter.

Last year we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Salem, MA, but that wasn’t possible this year. Nevertheless, we received an email confirmation for a reservation for Christmas dinner—one year late! 

On dismal weather days, of which we’ve had several, our dog is slow to get moving, which means he wants his morning walk later in the morning, closer to noon. This means that my husband’s midday walk comes earlier. I consider this another category of lateness but my husband considers it an unnecessary disruption to his schedule. In previous years, with a different dog, I had to drag the animal outside. During a snowstorm he would go no farther than the porch. I no longer do that. If a dog wants to go out in bad weather, he can ask.

Every year I make Christmas cookies. This year I burned several—I was late taking them out of the oven—but my husband is too nice to point that out. Besides, they’re still tasty.

My wishes for a Happy New Year are early, which makes a nice change. In 2021 I hope to get in sync with the rest of the world, or perhaps the rest of the world will sort itself out and we’ll all end up on the same page—emerging from isolation grateful to have survived healthy and ready to meet people without fear of infection.  I look forward to being on time in 2021, along with everyone else.

The Natural World in Crime Fiction

Many of the books I enjoy include some aspect of the natural world. An obvious recent example is The Witch Elm by Tana French, which revolves around an old tree in a yard where the main characters played as children and one returns as an adult to recover from an assault. Then there’s my own Below the Tree Line, which is set on a farm in rural Central Massachusetts. Now that I’m writing about a suburban setting, I’m taking a look at my neighborhood for scenes or aspects of nature to include in a traditional mystery. It’s not going as expected.

My first choice was to talk about apple trees, since we have one. However, it hasn’t produced a real crop in a few years, and right now looks like it’s dying. It might work if the book were entitled “Death of an Apple Orchard,” since the tree looks more like a sculpture than something that might have ever produced fruit. Scratch that idea.

The ornamental trees in this area seem to have developed a disease that kills off their leaves, so for the last two years they have looked like they too are dying. No one seems concerned enough to take them down, so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

To this I can add all the invasive species that have killed off our native species, thereby depriving other plants, birds, and animals of expected sustenance. Our own backyard is being overtaken by bittersweet, bamboo, rose of Sharon, and lots more. I’m not sure it’s even possible to get rid of the invasives now. It may be too late. Nature as evil invader. Not my idea of the setting for a cozy.

The other obvious choice for drawing nature into a tale is birds. I love birds, love watching them flit among the shrubs picking up a meal—bugs or seeds—and jabbering at each other. Cardinals are of course always welcomed, along with goldfinches, northern flickers, and egrets, even crows. But the winged creatures I most often see are not nearly as attractive, or as much of a pleasure to watch. Turkeys.

Turkeys are everywhere now.

Last year a flock made its way slowly down our street, passing from yard to yard in search of edibles. When they encountered a fence they headed out to the street. A driver trying to park made the mistake of honking at one of them. This is received as a direct insult, and the turkeys responded accordingly. Two of them attacked the car, pecking and jabbering at it. Not satisfied with this display of temper, they headed out into the street, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt. This was so disruptive that a neighbor entered the fray shooing away the turkeys to the other side of the road, allowing traffic to flow again. But the turkeys weren’t done yet. They reentered traffic, once again tying it up, until bored, they wandered away, down the center of the road.

Once when a turkey was behaving appropriately, I snapped a pic of it. The click of my iPhone startled the bird and he looked up, scanning the area for whatever creature had threatened him. I moved on.

These feather characters won’t work as background detail for a story, though they might serve as a motive for murder.

Notice I began looking for an apple tree but mine was not attractive, and then moved on to other aspects of nature that were less than serene or beautiful. The cozy mystery needs the apple tree in blossom, but a thriller or suspense story needs the scaly fruit tree. Nature offers us both (and a lot in between) and as writers we choose aspects of the natural world to signal theme, tone, mood. I plan to get those diseased decorative trees into a story very soon. The turkeys are more likely to find their way into a humorous story, perhaps fleeing a homeowner determined to get rid of them. I’ll enjoy writing that one. And then I’ll talk about the rabbits that are now everywhere.