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?

Say What?

by Janis Patterson

I read… a lot. Lately, however, it hasn’t been as pleasant as it used to be and more than a few books have hit the (metaphorical) wall. Without exception it’s the fault of the authors. Nearly every one was a first time author – I did verify that, but it really wasn’t necessary. Their writing said it all.

One of the most common (and worst) errors is a misuse of words. Not quite as bad as the homophonic mayhem such as broach/brooch or affect/effect or grisly/grizzly and the like, which sadly are quite common even among multi-published professionals, but I’m talking about the more egregious mis-choice of language. I’ll explain; there are two kinds of word usage – dialogue and exposition. Dialogue is what the character actually says/thinks – what actually comes out of the character himself.. Exposition is telling what is done.

I believe that dialogue should be true to the character speaking. (And in ‘dialogue’ I include written communications by the character – letters, texts, etc. – anything that is ‘spoken’ by the character, such as interior thoughts.) Is the character a crusty old fisherman who hates people? A feisty young heroine-type who prances through life cooking, talking with her cat and showing off her shoes? A silent but heroic Navy Seal with a deep sense of patriotism and a distrust of women? A culture-vulture society woman with a drive to climb higher on the social ladder? All have the potential to be great characters, but they shouldn’t sound anything like each other. They all need their own voice.

Each character has (or should have!) their own history, their own background, their own socio-economic standing, their own individuality. That means they have their own character-specific language, their own vocabulary, their own rhythm of speaking whether exterior (speaking to other characters) or interior (thoughts, letters, etc.). You can get away with almost any kind of grammar/word choice in dialogue AS LONG AS it is congruent with the character speaking and the time/location frame of the story. For example, you would not have a Regency dowager or a 1850s Plains Indian saying “Fer sure” or “You’ve got to be kidding me.” If you do have a social doyenne speaking like a dockworker or vice versa, you’d better have a very good reason for it stated in the book.

Expository writing, however, is different. This is everything that is not dialogue. This should be written by grammatical rules with correct and perhaps neutral vocabulary. Even in deep third POV expository writing is the author, not the character, and should be correct both in grammar and word choices.

That said, remember first person works have their own problem, for there the expository writing is from the viewpoint character and should reflect his age, status, attitude and general personality.

Correct use of both dialogue and expository writing can give your characters a depth and life. Done correctly, the reader should be able to determine who said what by the language they use, even if you don’t add a dialogue tag. However – both using a dialogue tag and not using one are constructions which should not be overused.

Writing is always a balancing act, but it becomes easier for both the writer and the reader when the languages choices are correct to the character.