Not Your Usual Suspect by Paty Jager

gabriel hawke logoThe way my mind, and I would expect most writer’s minds work, if I see a person with something interesting about them, chances are they are going to end up in one of my books.

I like to make my main and secondary characters stand out. Whether it’s their background, their mannerisms, or just the way they look. Study the people around you. No one is exactly like another. Yes, they may have the same color of hair or wear glasses. But if you look close, one may have designer glasses while another has the cheapest brand. And one may have smooth, shiny hair while another has hair that could use some conditioner or even be washed.  Both the glasses and the hair tell you a lot about that character without me saying too much.

That is what I like to do when writing. Give the readers just enough information about a character to then let their imaginations fill in the blanks.

I think if you over describe a character, you are not allowing the reader to fully use their imaginations in “seeing” your story.

Crime SceneIt’s like the scene were six people witness a crime and each one sees something different. I think all readers are the same way. Even if I did give them an exact description of a character, they would still “see” the character in their own way in their mind.

And I like to flip things around. If I see a well-dressed man with a bald head and carrying a brief case that’s normal. But I see he is wearing sneakers- that’s different. I figure out why he is wearing sneakers in my mind, then in my story, it’s a woman in her sixties, in a jacket and skirt, with sneakers and gray hair. She is wearing sneakers because she is finished with her appointments for the day and she is getting ready to walk home.  Maybe…

Now the man may just wear sneakers all the time because he is a CEO of a sporting goods firm, but I gave the spin on the woman and why she is wearing shoes to show some insight into her. She is a person concerned for her health, so she walks. And is wise enough to bring sneakers and confident in herself to be able to wear sneakers with business clothing.

Or- is she grudgingly walking because of her health. Perhaps her doctor told her she had to get more exercise and rather than “waste” time, she found she could walk to and from work faster than driving and that way, she gets her exercise and a few more minutes of work time?  There are so many ways to spin one character and so many ways to falsely show they may be the killer.

I would have to say my favorite part of writing murder mystery books is finding ways to throw the reader off and point a finger or evidence toward an innocent person. Does that make me cruel? Perhaps! But it is what makes writing and reading mystery books so much fun!

Go ahead, pick out a person and study them. How can you use something about them to create a character?

The ancient Indian art of tracking is his greatest strength... And also his biggest weakness.

MURDER OF RAVENS

Arresting his brother-in-law ended his marriage, could solving this murder ruin a friendship? https://www.books2read.com/u/bxZwMP

MOUSE TRAIL ENDS

Dead bodies in the wilderness. A child is missing. Hawke is an expert tracker, but he isn’t the only one looking for the child. https://books2read.com/u/mlYaWB

RATTLESNAKE BROTHER

Corrupt officials. Death to those who dare complain.  (Releasing March 20th)

 

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Poise Versus Panic By Patricia Smith Wood

imageSince I’m a Gemini, I have many “twin” features. Sometimes I’m one side, sometimes I’m the other.

I’ll give you an example. I can often take two different sides of an argument. Not as much as I once could (I think I’m getting set in my ways), but when called upon, I can. That means I can sometimes talk myself “down off the ceiling” when I get upset about something, or am too invested in one outcome over another.

I think most of us would prefer to respond to problems with poise, as opposed to panic, but sometimes, we just don’t pull it off. I’m going to tell you about two women who did.

I belong to the Croak & Dagger New Mexico Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As most chapters do, we have an interesting speaker (or two) at each of our meetings. For our February meeting, our program chair had secured two very interesting women who just happened to also be members of our chapter. One was a medical doctor with lots of emergency room experience, and the other was a Ph.D. in biology who had been a dean at the University of Wisconsin. They would talk to us about poisons—a subject they were both well versed in. They had given the same talk to a large group of writers at a conference in Las Vegas last summer, and they graciously agreed to provide it for us.

Well, naturally, mystery writers are interested in ways to kill people, so we were looking forward to the presentation. The two experts were going to give us a slide show to impart their information. Our intrepid program chair had contacted the officials at our meeting place (a community center) and requested a slide projector and a laptop for the night of the meeting. This was not an unusual request, and we had often asked for and received equipment such as this for a program. Everything was on track.

Until it wasn’t. Our program chair showed up early at the community center and found only a projector set up in the room—not the needed laptop. She immediately contacted the front desk and inquired. She explained she had been promised the equipment would be there, ready for the presentation no later than 6:30. The two young women (volunteers) shrugged. They knew nothing. It wasn’t their job.

I arrived within seconds of these revelations. I’m the membership chair (and immediate past president) of the group. I hadn’t known there would be slide presentation so was surprised at the problem. I called my husband and asked him to bring a laptop to me which we had used a number of times for slide shows. He did. I tried to set it up, there was a problem. Nobody there knew how to fix it, including me.

If you were a presenter, how would you feel right about now? What would you do? Say you’ll do it another time? Throw up your hands and pout? That’s NOT what our two ladies did.

They used their notes (and the laptop screen) to go through their presentation verbally. They took turns, went through the list of most potent poisons and where they come from. They explained the ways in which someone might be introduced to each poison. They answered questions and thoroughly captured their audience. It was a wonderful presentation.

No, we, the audience, did not get to see the slides. I’m sure that would have been wonderful. But that isn’t the point. Some people (and maybe even me) might have lost their cool, thrown a tantrum because the equipment they needed wasn’t available, or walked out and left us without a program. Not these ladies.

They didn’t pout—they were (and are) poised. They behaved like the professionals they are. They showed us all how to react to a minor disaster.

Which is, as it turns out, to do whatever you can to fix it, but if you can’t, do the best you can under the circumstances. I must admit I was inspired as much by the way they handled the situation as I was with the actual presentation. It’s a lesson I hope I don’t soon forget.

When I grow up, I want to be just like those two ladies.

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It Couldn’t Happen Here

By Sally Carpenter

For this post I’m going to forgo fiction for true crime.

Every week, it seems, another city is ravaged by a mass shooting. It’s easy from the security of ones own home to say, “How tragic, but it could never happen here.”

Until it does.

Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a large city about 10 or so miles south of where I live. It’s considered one of the safety cities of its size in the U.S. But on the night of Nov. 7, 2018, T.O. became another sad statistic.

An armed ex-Marine walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill during the monthly College Night when many young adults were relaxing and dancing to live country music. Within minutes, 12 people were shot dead—including a police office who lived in my town—and others wounded. The killer then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide.

Three months later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I don’t know any of the people present at the bar that night and I wasn’t there, so I can only image the terror as the survivors fled for their lives or helped others to safety. The survivors will no doubt be dealing with raw emotions for the rest of their lives. And the grief of the victims’ families seem unthinkable.

The police have determined no motive for the slaying. A few theories have been suggested, including PTSD, but questions remain: Of all the bars in T.O. that night, why that one? Why that night? What triggered the act? What did the madman hope to accomplish through killing strangers?

The bar remains closed out of respect for the victims, but another local music venue has stepped in to host a weekly Borderline Country Music Night, so the former house bands can continue to perform and the Borderline regulars can still gather in solidarity.

The rest of the community has shown amazing support. A foundation set up a special fund with the monies going directly to the victims’ families. Many groups and individuals have held fundraisers. A jeweler created unique necklaces with the profits going to the special fund. A printer created “T.O. Strong” T-shirts and has been working nonstop for weeks to fulfill orders.

REO Speedwagon was already scheduled for a local January concert, so the band (several of the musicians live in the area) decided to donate the ticket sales to the special fund. Due to audience demand, a second concert was added.

Another benefit concert was held in the large Civic Arts Plaza with a slew of well-known country singers along with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the emcee.

A small church of about 35 members held a special collection for the special fund that resulted in its largest Sunday offering to date. The local megachurch, Calvary Community, opened its doors to host several funerals for the victims, even those who were not church members.

An artist drew pencil sketches of the victims and donated the portraits to the families.  Another artist created a large wall banner with life-size color drawings of the fallen.

I work at a community newspaper, and besides carrying the news coverage, the paper is also running profiles of each victim. The reporter said the families have been happy to talk about their loved one and share their memories with the world.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this post, as real life is often messy and many crimes are never solved or resolved, as the pain lingers on long after the police report is filed.

Perhaps that is why we write mysteries. As authors, we have control over good and evil. Writers can punish the wicked and bring them to the justice that often seems lacking in reality. Authors can delve into minds and find the motive. Writers can tie up loose ends and leave readers with the satisfaction that, at least in our story, all will turn out right for the good guys.

Note: in your comments, please do not discuss gun control, mental illness, politics, police efforts or similar subjects. This post is not the place to debate such topics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.

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Getting the Details Right

GETTING THE DETAILS RIGHT

Recently I was asked to be a speaker at a writers’ conference—the topic being character and setting description. The chairperson titled it “Getting the Details Right.” Because I have messed up on the details in a few of my books, this is the perfect topic for me.

First off, two of the biggest mistakes I’ve made:

  1. Changing the type of car someone drives. In my first Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery, the car changed from a Blazer to a Bronco several times.
  2. Names of people—giving new characters in a story more than one name.
  3. Leaving out an important day of the week in a book that moved day to day through the week. (I fixed that before it got published.)

What I’ve seen in other people’s books:

  1. Giving a Japanese character a Chinese last name.
  2. Putting in details about a real city that are totally wrong. (And this is why I created my own cities even though they have a resemblance to a real place.)
  3. Setting a story in a fictional mid-west town with the wrong kind of geography and kinds of trees.
  4. Having too much happen in a much too small amount of time.
  5. Changing an important piece of description of a main character such as eye color

Let’s start with setting. I love books that clearly describe the places where the action takes place inside and out and also includes the weather (because this can be an important part of the plot), and different smells (which also can be an important part of the plot, or merely a means to evoke another sense of what the setting is like).

With characters we don’t need to know every detail of a person’s look, but enough to create a picture of the person in the reader’s mind. Along with the outward appearance, the personality is even more important. What in the person’s background would make someone do certain actions? Think about triggers to behaviors and motivations.

All of this is important, but to make sure not to get things wrong as I and many other authors have done, some means of keeping track of all these details needs to be used. Authors do this in many different ways from simply keeping written notes or an elaborate computer system. This is even more important for those of us who write series.

Anyone want to share how they keep track of the details? Or a mistake you’ve found in a book you’ve read

Marilyn

P.S. Though it’s been fixed now, I mixed up some character’s names in my last Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery. No one noticed ahead of time–my critique group, the editor I sent it too first, or the publisher who thought it was my best book in the series.

tangledwebs

Yep, this is the one.

 

 

 

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How Crime Novelists Come Up with Ideas by Richard Armstrong

Guest blogger banner

Where do writers come up with the ideas for crime and mystery novels?  It’s a bit of mystery itself, isn’t it!  I’m sure for some writers the crime section of the local newspaper is a rich source of inspiration.  Others may turn to history books and classical literature (like Macbeth) for ideas.  I even had an idea for a mystery novel come to me in a dream not long ago.  Unfortunately, the dream only gave me the title; I have to work out the rest myself.

It just so happens, however, that I remember the exact time and place when I got the idea for my new caper novel, THE DON CON.   My wife and I were in Rockport, Maine at a restaurant called “Shepherd’s Pie,” and we were having dinner with an old friend.  You may know him.  His name is Jonathan Frakes and he played Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I’ve known Jonathan for more than 40 years when we acted in a play together.

I asked Jonathan what he was doing nowadays and he told me he was directing a lot of network TV shows.  He also said that one of his sources of income was going to Star Trek conventions and signing autographs for money.  He regaled us with many funny stories about his experiences at these so-called “cons.”   At one of them, for example, he was annoyed to find a booth on the convention floor where they were selling Star Trek action figures.  A sign on the table said:

            “Buy any three action figures, and get one Commander Riker FREE!”

But the part of Jonathan’s story that really stuck with me was how much cash he was bringing home.   At $35 a pop for an autograph (more if you wanted a picture), Jonathan was leaving these conventions with his pockets, shirts, even his shoes stuffed with cash.  That’s when the idea occurred to me:

What if someone tried to steal all that money?

Not long afterwards, I began writing THE DON CON.  It’s a comedy thriller that tells the story of a washed-up actor who hit the high watermark of his career when he played a bit part as a gangster on The Sopranos.  Now he makes a living signing autographs at fan conventions.  One day, there’s a real gangster in his autograph line and he makes the actor an offer he can’t refuse: “You’re going to help me rob the celebrities at the next fan convention—or else.”

Jonathan was kind enough to write a blurb for THE DON CON, which will appear on the front cover when it’s released by Linden/Pace on April 1st.  Jonathan also invited me to join him at a small private dinner (during the Louisville “Supercon”) with William Shatner, Henry Winkler, and LeVar Burton.  Meeting Captain Kirk, Kunta Kinte, and The Fonz was like hitting the trifecta of iconic television stars, and it gave me some insight into what fan conventions are like from the celebrities’ point of view.

So how do mystery and crime writers come up with ideas for their novels?  The answer is to always ask yourself the “What if …” question.

But after that, it’s mostly a matter of sheer, dumb luck!

The Mafia comes to Comic-Con in a fast-paced suspense caper
The Don Con CoverJoey Volpe hit the high watermark of his acting career when he played a small role as a mobster on The Sopranos. If you blinked, you missed it.
But now he’s unemployed, broke, and forced to make a living by signing autographs at pop-culture fan conventions, or “Fan-Cons,” for $35 a pop. His lack of income, along with his chronic womanizing, has put his marriage at risk, too.
Joey’s life gets even worse when real mobster Tony Rosetti shows up in the autograph line with a plan to rob the next Fan-Con –an offer Joey can’t refuse. When the heist goes awry, Joey is left with a beef with Rosetti and two long years to plan.
Partnered with a smooth-talking con man, Joey is using all his acting skills on new projects: Revenge. Money. And saving his marriage.
The Don Con is pure a pure-entertainment caper novel with all the intrigue of Ocean’s 11 and The Bank Job –as well as a smart, witty pop culture satire that riffs on The SopranosThe Godfather, Comic-Con, Star Trek, and The Sting.
Releasing in April 2019

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Richard Armstrong is also the author of another crime novel “God Doesn’t Shoot Craps,” in addition to two non-fiction books published by William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins.  For more about Richard (and to get a free copy of his special report, HOW TO TALK ANYBODY INTO ANYTHING: Persuasion Secrets of the World’s Greatest Con Artists, please visit www.thedoncon.com

 

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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.

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