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)

 

What a character!

by Sally Carpenter

I recently began rewatching an old favorite TV show from the 1970s, “Alias Smith and Jones,” about two bank robbers in the Old West who decide to go straight. This time around I noticed that much of the show—and its appeal—was based less on traditional western action (gunfights, brawls, horse chases) than on character development.

Some of the stories were complex and required close attention, but the focus was on the two charming, good-hearted protagonists and the fascinating characters they encounter each week. We have many long scenes of just two people talking—and it’s interesting.

TV shows of the 1970s were loaded with gimmicks and catch phrases (“Aaayyyy!” “Oooooo, Mr. Kotter!” “Who loves ya, baby?” “There ya go!”). Baretta had his cockatoo. Cannon was obese. Kojak was bald and ate lollipops. McCloud wore a cowboy hat and boots in Manhattan. Ironside was in a wheelchair. Charlie’s Angels was jiggle. Even people who never watched the shows recognized these characters, but does anyone remember the stories?

Columbo (my favorite TV detective) had his raincoat, rumbled suit, cigar, old car, lazy dog, unseen wife and loads of relatives. At one point Peter Falk complained that his show was overloaded with gimmicks. Yet “Columbo” stands out not only for the subtle clues and sharp dialogue but because Falk expanded the character beyond the artifices into a captivating person that viewers wanted to bring home to dinner.

Back to “Alias Smith and Jones.” The protagonists, Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes, had no gimmicks, tics or catch phrases. Kid was a fast draw. Heyes possessed a silver tongue that could charm the skin off a snake, and was often the brain behind their schemes. But that’s as far as it went. Ben Murphy and Peter Duel (later Roger Davis) developed their characters through their actions and dialogue—as any good actor should do.

What does all this have to do with mystery writing?

Mysteries have a reputation of sacrificing character for plot. The emphasis is on solving the mystery/puzzle. Too often the characters are caricatures or stereotypes (the hard-bitten PI, the femme fatal, the overweight rural sheriff, the klutzy/ditzy female cozy sleuth who falls in love with the police chief) whose sole purpose is to serve the plot. Character depth or development often gave way for clues and plot complications.

Readers may spend time once with a book to solve the crime. But if the characters don’t grab them, they’ll never give the story a second read.

The appeal of cozies is in the character more than the crime. Each cozy series strives to create a loveable cast that the reader gets to know more with each new book. Readers watch a protagonist go through romance, courtship, marriage and maybe children. Young characters grow up and older ones may decline. Many cozies have the “goofy relatives” (which are often stock characters) who provide conflict for the protagonist.

A criticism of cozies is that they are more about the characters than the plot. I’ve seen cozies in which the body appears on page one and then disappears until the murderer, for no reason, blurts out a confession to the protagonist in the last chapter. Not what I call a mystery.

So the challenge in mystery writing is to balance both character and plot—that the crime carries through the entire story and is solved by the protagonist through fair play and sensible clues, and that the characters are fully developed personalities, unique but realistic.

All this with a minimum of gimmicks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digging into a Character by Paty Jager

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View from my ride-along

I’m currently working on a the first book of a new mystery series. This new series is making me grow as a writer which is what I hope each book does, but this series and character in particular is really making me stretch my brain which isn’t getting any younger.

I picked not only a male protagonist but I made him Native American ( one of my signatures of what I write) and I put him in a profession I know nothing about. Whew! Talk about working in a totally new environment!

Through the years writing romance before I got the nerve to try my hand at mystery, I wrote from both the male an female points of view and in my Shandra Higheagle series I write from a male point of view with Detective Ryan Greer. But this book is told completely from the male point of view- from Fish and Wildlife State Trooper Gabriel Hawke’s point of view.

Not only do I have to think like a male, I have to think a bit Native American and as a lawman would. Having been around my son-in-law who is a detective with the State Police, I’ve learned that even when they appear to be off duty and hanging around, they are still seeing things and picking up on things that the rest of us shrug off.

Trying to keep my character “on the alert” yet laid back and letting things happen as they should has been a tricky balance. Using his upbringing and his drive as counterpoints has also been tricky.  He has worked hard to get out of the reservation and to have the job he does-protecting his ancestors land. But at the same time because he is protecting his ancestors land he has a deep connection to his Native American roots. While he is full blood Native American he still feels as if his feet are in two worlds. He is upholding the Whiteman’s law as a lawman, but at the same time keeping vigilance over his Native roots.

This first book is taking me longer to write than I thought it would but I had to put it on hold while I did a ride-along with a Fish and Wildlife State Trooper in the Eagle Cap Wilderness where my character works.  The day I spent with the game warden was eye opening in the scope of duties they must preform. Because it is a large remote area, not only do they have to do their game duties but they also serve as a state trooper and while they are on the trail of a poacher or trespasser and there is a call that comes in about a shooting or domestic dispute they have to respond even if it is across the county from where they are at the moment.

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Elk refuge where we were looking for trespassers

The best part about the ride-along was getting the troopers perspective on his job and learning some of the little nuances that I can add to books to give the character the flavor of a real life person.

When the first Gabriel Hawke book is ready to go to my critique partners and beta readers it will be interesting to see if I managed to get the male character correct.

The first thing that pulls me into a book is the characters. What about you?

SH Mug Art

Understanding Your Characters

Part of what makes a great story is great characters. Any reader can tell you that. Writers talk about developing characters, fleshing them out, giving them back story, making them flawed and relatable. These are all vital steps in creating great a character.

But once the character is created, I find I have yet one more hurdle that I have to jump: I have to understand my characters.

A young couple in Galway contemplate the evening

But you created them, you might say with surprise. You wrote their background, you devised their likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. What’s left to understand?

Lots.

Characters run the show. They get away from you, the writer, taking their own story in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous. Yet it happens to all writers.

In my current work in progress, I realized after finishing the second draft that I had the wrong killer. A different character was standing in the wings looking guiltily around, trying not to make eye contact with me. Ah-hah, I thought. That’s the real killer!

Trying to pull a fast one on me, I might add.

In several of my books I have another problem of understanding with some of my characters: I write characters who are not native English speakers.

My mother and grandmother in Warsaw

As we all know, language affects not just the way we talk but even the way we think. Writing a foreign character (foreign to me, that is) means not only understanding their native tongue enough to be able to replicate their thoughts, but also understanding the way they frame their thoughts in the first place.

A Pole, an American and an Irishman walk into a bar…. They’re all thinking a little differently and it’s my job to understand those differences.

A woman examines a grave in Warsaw. What might she be thinking?

I’m not complaining. I love that job! I spend time improving my language skills. (By the way, for anyone interested in learning French, I recommend the lessons by Paul Noble. They’re very good!). Extra bonus, it helps when I travel the world and meet new people. So it’s a good problem to have. And one that I hope I have succeeded in overcoming.

But you tell me. If you’ve read any of my books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my foreign characters and how well I’ve captured their differences.

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski mystery series at janegorman.com.

Lessons from Outside My Genre, or, How Reading History Informs Writing Mystery

My book-related gratitude this year is for my book club. One of many things I love about Amber in tree finalbeing in this club is the diversity of genres we explore. I’ll always read mysteries, but I need to go outside my genre. It challenges me to learn new information and do more critical thinking. Reading other genres also makes me a better writer.

For October’s read, we chose Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington, an 800-plus- page book. We had to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we select a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election.washington_1772

I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that could provide lessons for any story-teller and which make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”

Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.

Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.

Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in dismal terms. In a letter to his friend and trusted general Henry Knox, he said this of being elected president: “…movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution.” Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with our common expectations of people in politics.

Secondary characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and yet he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel. My book club told me I have to write it. I think someone else should.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals what he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.

Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers, and he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him. And, as a man of his times, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s.

Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.

Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait, though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on his home décor, but when his extravagance is extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.

I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.

A Letter from the Antagonist

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For one weekend this past fall, my personal antagonist was Amber in tree finaltechnology. I’ll spare you the whole story. The short version is this: I couldn’t access my work in progress due to various computer issues and I was having severe withdrawal symptoms from not writing all day. It’s as bad as not exercising—I feel strange and incomplete if I go without either for a full day. I had to write by hand.

Fortunately, there’s one thing I always do by hand for each book, and I was at exactly the right point in the work in progress to do it. Before the final version of the plot is set, but after I can see where it’s going, I write the story in the first person from the antagonist’s point of view. No scenes, no dialog, just that character’s voice telling what happened and why. This exercise gives me insight into the complexity of the oppositional characters’ feelings about their actions. It also helps me keep track of events offstage, so I can weave in all the loose ends. Since I never include scenes from the antagonist’s point of view in a book, this process doesn’t have to be polished. All it needs to do is flow.

My mysteries aren’t about murder, so my antagonist characters aren’t villains or killers, though the opposition character in Snake Face comes close. Sometimes they commit crimes; sometimes they manipulate people without being criminal. I noticed, after reading Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s concise, humorously titled but serious work of philosophy, On Bullshit, that I tend to cast bullshitters in the antagonist’s role—Charlie in The Calling and Jill in Soul Loss. Maybe, after years in academia, I’ve come to think bullshit is a crime.

During my weekend without a computer, I invited a puzzling and deeply secretive character to tell his story as if he were sitting down and confiding in me. Or I might say, since I ended up with his hand-written narrative, he wrote me a letter. From that document I discovered which clues would need to come next in gradually revealing his story, and what would need to be saved for the end. He told me things I didn’t know about the people who helped him, and surprised me with a revelation of his deepest motive. I’ve recently wrapped up the book, Ghost Sickness, which is coming out in August, and I’m looking forward to doing this exercise with the new work in progress, even without enforced separation from my computer.ghost sickness ebook

*****

 Yesterday, inspired by a power outage, I posted on my other blog about an additional writing-by-hand creative process, the story mandala. https://amberfoxxmysteries.com/2016/07/20/monsoon-moon-and-mandala

Dosha, Character and Setting

Amber in tree finalIt feels strange to say that I create characters. They show up, complete with names and complex personal histories, and it’s my job to get to know them and understand how they tick. One of the tools I use for this is the concept of the three doshas—patterns of body type, personality and preferences—from Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India. I had some introductory education in Ayurveda in both of my yoga teacher trainings, with the Temple of Kriya Yoga and with Integrative Yoga Therapy.

The three doshasvata, pitta and kapha—are associated with combinations of the five elements. Vata is space and air. Pitta is fire and water. Kapha is earth and water. In each person, these manifest in both healthy and unhealthy ways. An individual might be a pure type or a blend of types. Sometimes intuitively and sometimes intentionally, I use the doshas in analyzing my characters and how they interact with each other and the world around them.

An idea that intrigued me in one of my classes on Ayurveda was that not only people but places and seasons have doshas. There is nothing more vata than spring in New Mexico, with the desert wind blowing, and it reaches its hottest and driest in June. I used that season in Soul Loss, which takes place from March through June, primarily in Santa Fe, a vata setting. Even its river is inclined to be dry and is irregular in its flow. Vata is changeable, creative, humorous, erratic, and sometimes spacey. No wonder Santa Fe is home to so many creative people, and also spiritual healers and psychics. That’s who the primary characters in Soul Loss are, and even the crime takes place at the spirit-world level.

I think people feel most at home in a place that complements their dosha. Athletic, competitive, and focused, my protagonist Mae Martin is a pitta type, mind and body. Even her red hair is a classic pitta trait. She loves Truth or Consequences and its hot springs, and thrives on the energy of New Mexico’s July-August “monsoon” season. In the first book in the series, The Calling, she’s living in Tylerton North Carolina, which has a wet and heavy climate, and it doesn’t suit her. It’s too kapha in every way, culture and land and weather. When she first gets to Santa Fe in Shaman’s Blues, the altitude makes her feel spacey, and this bothers her, while vata-kapha Jamie Ellerbee is truly at home there.

Hurricane_Isabel_14_sept_2003_1445ZThe oppressive East Coast weather in Snake Face is vata-kapha, windy yet wet and heavy, and it takes place in winter, a kapha season disrupted by an abnormal vata event, a December hurricane. The windstorm is something out of balance. Jamie gets caught up in both the hurricane and a storm in his inner life. His creativity and humor are healthy vata, and his music—voice and woodwinds—is based on air, vata at its most beautiful. His mood swings, short attention span and anxiety are the other side of vata. His unshakeable loyalty in love and friendship is kapha, but his tendency to depression and weight problems are the kapha shadow. I used the hurricane as background music that builds up along with the troubles that are chasing him.snakeebooknew

Even when I haven’t consciously chosen to use the doshas of character and place and season, when I look back on their interactions, I can see that I did it intuitively. When two characters are in a lot of conflict, it’s often in the way they manifest their dosha. Mae and her mother are both strong pitta types, destined to butt heads, and one of the antagonist characters in the upcoming Ghost Sickness is also a pure pitta type who turns everything into a competition. Mae is attracted to men who manifest healthy kapha , a solidity and stability that she finds appealing, but their earth-water qualities can also make her feel that they are stuck in the mud.

Here’s my simplified short list of the dosha traits and seasons.

Vata: space and air. Thin, asymmetrical, distractible, creative, changeable. Default stress reaction: anxiety. Spring and fall.

Pitta: fire and water. Medium build, strong, competitive and driven, capable of prolonged intellectual focus. Default stress reaction: irritability or anger. Summer.

Kapha: earth and water. Can be big and muscular, womanly and curvy, or overweight. Steady, enduring. Can have calm, peaceful energy or a tendency to lethargy. Default stress reaction: procrastination or depression. Winter.

Do you see the doshas at work in your stories?