Tactile Pleasure of Mystery Writing

For the last several months I’ve been rewriting a mystery from first person to third. This was more fun and more rewarding than I at first expected and I’m pleased with the results. One of the best parts of the work was rearranging the plot and reworking and developing the subplot. I have a general rule that when this part of writing a mystery gets tedious, then it’s time to start over. That didn’t happen this time, and I enjoyed one of my favorite aspects of crime writing.

Setting up and working out a mystery is for me the same as working out a puzzle, or finding a new tool and learning how it works. I like moving pieces around, setting up clues, keeping track of lines of dialogue that can be used later, reworking a clue, slotting in hints in dialogue to guide or mislead the reader, or lifting and replacing scenes. Dorothy L. Sayers called this process of working out a plot a “tactile” pleasure, and indeed it is. I’m not talking about notecards; I’m talking about the mind’s perception that the hands, fingers, are moving physical items around on a surface.

Some years ago, I signed up for a design course to learn more about how designers work to help me think about book covers. It was a revelation. Never had I more truly understood the difference between a writer’s mind and that of a designer. The first lesson was to use our names in a design as a way to introduce ourselves. I fussed for days over fonts, letter placement (vertical or horizontal), and more unimaginative details.

The student work I remember best was a drawing of the letters of his name tumbling out of a cornucopia in random order. I never produced anything equal to the work of the other students but I learned to release objects as well as ideas from their given, or assumed, boundaries. Which, when you come to think about it, is kin to what’s happening in crime fiction—individuals breaking rules and crossing lines, violating boundaries and challenging others to contain them.

The term “boundaries” has come to mean an emotional guide we use to protect ourselves from others or establish areas where connection is possible. We establish rules of interacting, and talk at length about how to do this. But boundaries are also physical, lines on a map drawn between nations or neighbors. We think of them as fixed, but experience tells us they’re not. Mystery writers have no trouble rearranging the world to suit our purposes. It makes me think of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in 1945, rearranging the map of Europe before the war was officially over.

Rearranging a plot is rarely so significant as Yalta but slipping the pieces out of logical, rational place can produce the startling results that jiggle the brain out of its comfortable path. Examples abound in the work of Anthony Berkeley, a writer of the Golden Age, in his repeated challenges to the idea of justice and the issue of justified homicide. By seeing an encounter between two people in terms of its individual steps, the writer can pull apart the entire progress and rearrange the steps into a challenge to the standard perceptions of crime and violence. Every time a writer makes a change in the story, no matter how minor, she is turning what is regarded as a straightforward crime into a plot, and leading the reader to break established boundaries and ways of thinking about a particular event. This is a useful skill that might well be applied to all areas of life.

From First to Third

Since publishing my first mystery in 1993, my preferred point of view has always been third person. In the Mellingham/Chief Joe Silva series I used multiple points of view, and in the Anita Ray series and later the Felicity O’Brien series I used only one. All were third person. But a few years ago I wanted to try first person, and started a stand-alone. After numerous rewrites I had something my agent liked, and out it went to editors, where it has died a pandemic death of neglect.

While I’ve been waiting for responses I’ve had time to think about all the parts of the story I couldn’t tell because I’d committed myself to first person and one main character. I had no interest in adding other points of view in either first or third, but the initially quiet moments of dissatisfaction at what I’d left out grew and I wondered what it would have been like to write the story in third person. Immediately I was reminded of why I liked that particular voice—for the intimacy and also the flexibility it allowed me as the narrator. And that did it. I decided to rewrite the mystery in third person.

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of writers groan about an editor’s or agent’s suggestion that they rewrite the entire book from first to third (or third to first), always with the reminder drumming in their brain that this means more than changing “I” to “she” (or “she” to “I”), along with all the other pronouns as well as correcting the verbs. But the thought of what I could also do prodded me forward and I began. The first discovery was the opening. I needed a different opening, and once I began that I could feel the difference in how the story would unfold.

One of the reasons I’ve avoided first person for so many years comes down to the voice. Too many of the voices in crime fiction seem flip, sarcastic, chip-on-the-shoulder tough, the teenage swagger, a voice that doesn’t sound authentic to me and one I didn’t want to imitate. The strongest people I know are also the gentlest, and that was something I couldn’t seem to capture in first person, at least to my satisfaction. Now that I’ve moved back to third person I feel the other characters opening up, and exploring them more has given the story new dimensions that I’m eager to learn and write about.

In some parts of the novel I’m rewriting an entire chapter—the same plot steps but rewritten line by line. I’ve added new scenes and chapters, but in other instances all I’m doing is changing pronouns and verbs or crossing out entire paragraphs or scenes.

When I began the rewrite I thought about how much work it would be, but still I was curious. I wondered if I’d get bored or frustrated reworking a story whose characters and details I already knew too well. But once I got into a new perspective on the main character, much of the story began to feel new to me (and much of it is new to me). I’m energized every morning as I sit down to work. The characters and plot are the same, but this mystery unfolds like an entirely new experience. For once I’m not cursing the pandemic; it has given me the time to rethink and rewrite a story I care deeply about and want to see succeed. And when this is rewrite is done, I want the pandemic to be over so my new novel can go out into the world and be read by others.

It’s Awkward

Once a month I appear on this blog, so I have about four weeks to think of what I want to say. Most of the time I have no problem coming up with an opinion on anything, but shaking loose an idea I want to explore and spend time with that will benefit other writers, even if it’s short, is harder.

My first idea usually gets shelved. This month I considered writing about Beta readers because two experiences from my earlier years came to mind. A friend who wasn’t someone I considered a book person asked about what I was working on. He asked to read it when it was ready. When I had a pretty good draft (perhaps fourth or fifth), I gave it to him. He gave me lots of notes and conversation, and a year later I reworked the story. He again asked about it, so I showed it to him. This time he didn’t like it at all even though it was essentially the same book. He took exception to things he liked the first time around and passed over things that excited him before. Okay. I don’t know what this means except that he changed in the interval, and first impressions are more useful than second impressions. I shelved that blog.

Than I moved on to the idea of reviewing. This is tricky for a writer reviewing in her genre, so after reviewing numerous titles in the 1980s and 1990s for all sorts of journals–The Drood Review of Mystery, Mystery Scene, and Publishers Weekly among them, and later Audible–I gave it up for the simple reason that it became too awkward. After attending a few conferences, including Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, as well as Crime Bake later, I knew too many writers whose books I loved as a reader but could see flaws in as a reviewer. Awkward for sure. End of that topic.

The pandemic is still with us but I’ve already posted about it twice and I’m sick of it. You may be too. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. How is it affecting my work? Hard to say, though I expect we’ll all discover in a year or two that we were in a fog for almost a year and we’ll look back on these months with their fears and restrictions and wonder why we did the things we did. It will be, yes, awkward. Enough of that topic.

And then we come to words. I love words. Nothing new there. I also love my dictionary (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, second college edition, printed on lovely onion skin paper), which comes with etymologies. The “Guide to the Dictionary” is a six-page explanation of the construction of the entry, all those little bits we lump together as the definition. My favorite line in this guide is “In no case is the first spelling considered ‘more correct’ or the one necessarily to be preferred.” There are also several pages on language, including English, and more on Americanisms. I’m enjoying myself but I’m not sure another reader would be. Time for another topic.

Editing is always a reliable subject because, Lordy knows, we writers do enough of it and we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient. I’d love to be able to write and construct a story well enough not to have to all but rewrite the damn thing during the editing process. I think of the standard advice, When in doubt, throw it out. The trouble with that advice is that it calls to mind a note on an article I sent to a publisher. It “didn’t fit” their journal so they sent it back, but in the notes a reader and editor left was the comment, “This is an excellent sentence.” I found the passage and read it. It read like all my other sentences. What was so special about this one? After turning to it every year or so, I still don’t know. It just looks like all the other passages in that article (still unpublished), so I seem to have not only no advice on editing but also no sense of what to edit. End of topic.

So here I sit at 7:30 on Saturday morning without a topic for my blog post. You’ll just have to tolerate my ineptness today, and I hope to do better next month. Yes, I know, it’s awkward.

Writer’s Block or Writer’s Rest

During the last month or so my mind has been a blank. I haven’t had a single new idea and have plodded forward on the fiction I’ve been working on—editing and proofing—all the while wondering where I would be when this work was finished. This is called writer’s block, but I have learned to call it Writer’s Rest.

At first I called it a drought. I felt dry, used up, empty, as though I had reached the end of the line, the finish line for fiction, the moment when I retire and try something else. Photography? Embroidery? Gardening? Sleeping? I’ve been dabbling in these for years. Was one of them about to take center stage? Unlikely. I began writing as a teenager and knew at once that this was something I had to do. The desire was far stronger than something I wanted to do. It was something I had to do, something I could not not do.

Over the years I’ve become accustomed to my personal quirks and mostly learned to live with them. Inspiration comes in the form of a general idea for a short story or a novel, the vivid image of a person or a situation from which a character emerges. In the AHMM July/August 2020 issue is my story “The Pledge.” The idea came from a news report of a police chief talking about a young man from the Midwest who got himself into trouble in the winter because he couldn’t read the landscape—what looked familiar to his rural eyes was quite different in New England. The police chief’s comments remained with me until the story idea shook them into shape.

In another short story I was struck by the relatives of a foster child who tolerated him but didn’t really want him around. He showed up after school and lingered till he was sent home at dark. This seemed cruel until it occurred to me there might be a reason for their awkwardness. From that came “Just Another Runaway” in AHMM November/December 2019.

These and other story ideas show up on their own, not when I’m rattling around at my desk looking for a good writing prompt and definitely not when I’m trying to force an idea into existence. Since I’m writing every day, you might say I always have a writing prompt in progress so what need do I have for more? Well, how about the moment Writer’s Block hits?

My suggestion in this post is different. It is to think about the purpose of a month or perhaps only a week of writer’s block. While I’m fretting about coming to the end of my career, my unconscious is rearranging the snippets of life I’ve collected and looking for something interesting, intriguing, riveting, revealing. My unconscious is at work creating while I’m fretting consciously about losing my imagination to ageing or boredom or something else.

While I typed the first few words of this blog post I got an idea for a short story and had to stop to write it down. Fifty years ago I met a Catholic priest who had such a clear dislike for secular women (and perhaps women religious as well, though I can’t say) that I had to force myself to keep appointments with him and conduct the business I was required to do. That kind of experience remains with you, and as I began typing this evening, the story revolving around him finally came to me. I’ve waited for a long time for this. After fifty plus years I’m going to get that man out of my head, and in a way that preserves his offensive biases and the damage they can do.

When I’m not obsessed with it, Writer’s Block is nothing more for me than the required rest for my unconscious to work out problems and deliver the results to my conscious mind. Sometimes a number of ideas arrive all at once in an afternoon, so I spend a few days trying them out. Do they resonate with something I learned or experienced recently? Do they give me a new way of looking at someone or a particular problem? Do I feel this will lead to personal discovery and deepen my understanding of a character? By asking these questions I get deeper into the idea and discover if it will sustain attention over several pages or thousands of words. Is there a story here worth the effort? Am I drawn in deeper just by thinking about it? If the idea falls apart on closer inspection, then I’m glad to let it go. But if it rewards me with twists and surprises, then I’m glad to write out a short paragraph about it and think about when I can begin work.

My drought, or Writer’s Rest, has ended. It came to an end while I was preparing this blog post and left me an idea for a short story featuring Ginny Means, a social worker, and a novel featuring a fortuneteller who has more talent than she realizes. I’d say that’s a pretty good ending to what can be a grim time.

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.”