Conformity – Celebration or Curse?

by Janis Patterson

There is a plague spreading through my neighborhood and no, I don’t mean the recent Covid Crazies. This new assault is visible, concrete and sublimely ugly. I live in a nice, mid-century development of nice, middle-class custom homes, mostly single story and at one time all of natural brick. The different hues and shadings of the different bricks were beautiful, and one of the most appealing facets of the area. A former cotton field, this was starkly bare land when my parents first built this home, but as people moved in they planted trees and now we live in a forest of towering trees, mainly oaks and crepe myrtles, some twice as tall as the houses they shelter.

But that is changing, and not for the better. The soaring price of real estate and congruent punishing taxes has priced a lot of the old residents out of their homes, many of which have been snapped up by developers and flippers. (My thoughts on these two categories of humanoids are not suitable for public pixilation!) Sadly, the result is that our neighborhood is subject to both the denigration and degradation of conformity, and the lovely old brick is being covered by thick layers of paint with no shading, no personality and definitely no taste.

Painted almost exclusively a dead flat white or a dark, depressing grey, these once beautiful and individual homes now resemble nothing so much as the love child of Soviet brutalist architecture and a rogue box of Legos. In the setting of gracious old trees and carefully tended gardens the result is not only ugly but jarringly distressing.

One of the flippers proudly said the painted brick trend was new, modern and made a more cohesive neighborhood. He then asked me what I thought of his newly decorated grey lump, whereupon I asked him did he mean other than the fact it was hideous? Hmmm… even in this riotous real estate market the painted brick houses seem to be moving more slowly than the traditional brick. Perhaps the concept of good taste may be taking a beating, but is not yet truly dead.

So, you are doubtless thinking, has this woman lost her mind? What does this have to do with writing?

I fully believe there is such a thing as synchronicity amongst human beings. Bringing individual architecture (and remember, this is a neighborhood of custom-custom houses, each individually designed and built) into a fast (and relatively cheap) homogeneity in order to appeal to the (theoretically) vastest amount of people is a form of seeking the lowest common denominator with no thought or regard for individual tastes. The same thing happened in publishing.

Remember before the tsunami of self-publishing became practicable? Remember the pigeonholes of genre fiction? The ever-tightening pigeonholes as dictated by traditional publishing? If you didn’t write to their exact specifications you didn’t get contracted. They always wanted (and I quote) “… the same as (insert name of currently popular author here) but different…” Forget creativity. Forget individuality. Conformity at all costs. I can remember when some publishers even put out tip sheets, dictating what should happen in a manuscript almost to the exact page.

Now I understand that traditional publishers have to make a profit – that is right and natural – but don’t the readers have rights as well, mainly the right to read whatever permutation of fiction they want? If the trads dictated that Regency romance is to be super-sexy with only the barest nod of the head to history, what happens to the reader who finds written sex boring and is fanatic about historical accuracy? Or vice-versa? What about in mysteries the dictum that a dead body should appear in the first chapter, the closer to the first page the better?

Thus self-publishing was born, and thank God for it! It has freed writers to write what they want and get it before the public, and given readers to find the exact kind of book/genre they want. Sexy psychic vampire nuns on the planet Zeon, anyone?

Yet a certain conformity has crept in there, too, as more and more writers write to market. If talking cats who live in a needlework shop and solve crimes with their telekinetic powers are suddenly big, there are star-chasing writers who will writer them, often with widely varying degrees of both success and ability. At least there will always be variety, no matter if some constantly try to write to market without regard as to if the market is right for them or not.

Also the indie author is getting shafted by more and more pirates/thieves and are even getting short shrift from the sales outlets which make money from their sales. Amazon has a monthly subscription program for readers called Kindle Unlimited, which it pushes far more than books that are ‘wide’ – i.e., available from other retailers. A self-published book written by an unknown can be so far down in the algorithms that even with a search for the exact title and author you might have to go 10 or 15 pages in to find it.

For a self-published author to be in KU they must be totally exclusive to KU, and woe betide any lone outlet which has been neglected to be removed by any retailer, no matter how small, distant or obscure. The writer will have that book pulled instantly from KU and even runs the risk of having his entire account and all his books cancelled.

Nor does it stop there. Unfairly, traditional publishers can put a book into KU even while keeping the title wide. Here conformity only seems to affect the independents. There are also pricing/payment options available to the trads that are denied to self-publishers. I cannot help but wonder if the trad books on Amazon are as plagued by the buy, read, return, refund plague which afflicts self-published books – and their authors’ incomes,  but that is a rant for another day.

We have come a long way from the tastelessness of painted brick to the pitfalls and traps of self-publishing, but it is all part and parcel of the curse of conformity which seems to be infecting our land. America was founded on the right to individuality and self-responsibility, be it business, bricks or reading material. Celebrate this by supporting your courageous and dedicated self-publishers. Go buy one of their books today. You’ll enjoy it.

What’s Old is New Again – Explorations in the Serial Format


by Janis Patterson

If you’ve been reading my various posts and blogs over time, you are probably aware that I bore very easily. That’s why I write in so many different genres and so many variations of my name. However, sometimes even variety become stale and boring, so lately other occupations had been sending their seductive lures my way.

Then came Vella. (Sounds sort of like the title of a rom-com, doesn’t it?)

For those of you who don’t know, Vella is a new platform by Amazon Kindle that is sold serial-format, i.e., chapter by chapter. (Shades of Charles Dickens, not that I am comparing myself to Charles Dickens…) Sort of like the old Saturday morning movie serials we old people remember.

Being very bored one afternoon I thought I’d give it a try… and stepped into a new world. Before going to bed – happily exhausted, I remember – I had written three episodes. Within just a short time I had finished all thirty-six episodes of what I called GHOSTS OF BELLE FLEUR and had them loaded on the Vella platform.

I had already started another story, too, a crime-and-chase fem-jep tale called THE SWABIAN AFFAIR, set in Stuttgart during the time of the Christmas market. At just nineteen episodes it’s roughly half the length of GHOSTS. Both are now available on Kindle Vella.

Quite honestly, this serial format is so much fun I started yet another story, this one set in South Carolina called THE HOUSE WITH THE RED DOOR and have fourteen episodes finished. The first couple of episodes should go live next week. (One neat thing is that the first three episodes of every Vella story are always free!)

So far all my stories have been written by my Janis Susan May persona, but I’m planning to do a murder story under my mystery name of Janis Patterson. This, of course, will require more forethought, but it will be an interesting process.

As I come to the end of each episode I have to think, “What can I do to these poor people now?” Although there does have to be a cohesive story arc from the beginning to the end, I find there is so much more latitude in this unabashedly ‘hook-ish’ serial format. I can pull all kinds of circumstances from my little bag of tricks. Usually I decide on something that is either so intriguing the reader can’t wait to get to the next installment, or something so off-the-wall and unexpected that they’re startled and can’t wait to get to the next installment.

I know that writing and reading tastes are cyclical (just look at the rebirth of the serial format!) and that what is fresh and new and fun now will eventually become tomorrow’s tired and old hat drag, but I’m going to enjoy it while I’m here. The best thing is that so far I have not been desperate enough to have a T-Rex rise from the lake and eat all the characters, as happened with a regular book not too long ago! But it’s a nice twist to have up my sleeve if needed…

Serial novels… wonder what will come back next?

Call Out the T-Rex!

by Janis Patterson

Whether a plotter or a pantser or anything in between, I’m sure every writer has reached a point in their current work where they despair. The characters aren’t behaving. An enormous and seemingly insoluble plothole has developed. The timeline makes no sense and crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. The whole project has turned into a dogs’ dinner of a mess and simply doesn’t make any kind of sense.

This kind of despair usually hits in the last few chapters, where the writer is desperately trying to wrap up all the plot threads and create a satisfying ending. Usually at this point the only thing that keeps you from tearing everything up is the sad knowledge that nothing new could be any better. This is why some writers drink. Others, like me, tend to wear out their hot tubs and wonder why they didn’t become a plumber.

Fortunately, though, professionals have learned how best to deal with the situation. I’m not going to say how, because the answer is different for every writer and sometimes for every book. What counts is the result, not the process.

When a writer is brainstorming trying to get past these obstructions, we sometimes have strange fancies. Not too long ago I was trying to finish up a novella that had given me trouble from the beginning. My stories are very character driven, meaning that after the initial set-up what transpires is the result of the characters and how they react/behave. (The opposite is called plot oriented, where the plot is fixed and, however illogically, the characters are required to behave in a way that forwards the pre-determined plot. Both versions have their reasons and their adherents.)

Well, I did have a skeletal story framework (it was an historical romance), but my characters rebelled. Instead of being a benevolent ringmaster guiding the characters through their logical paces, I had to become something between a dictator and a prison warden, forcing my recalcitrant and obstreperous characters to do what they were supposed to do to preserve the integrity of the story. It wasn’t a fault of the plot/story, because that worked out perfectly – in theory. The characters were just acting out and refusing to behave. Yes, for most writers the story develops to a point where the characters take over – and that’s a good thing, most of the time, because it means you have created real people, even if they do exist only in your head. (There is a reason writing has been called controlled schizophrenia for fun and profit…)

Anyway, I had been fighting this kind of rebellion for several days and the deadline was approaching with alarming speed. Had there been more time I just might have started over and locked this story away for a year or two, but that luxury wasn’t available. Finally I just sat back and decided that the best way to solve this was an unexpected ending – I would just have a T-Rex arise from the ornamental lake and gleefully eat all the characters. A nice, clean (except for the resultant and inevitable mess on the lawn) ending that resolved all problems.

Don’t worry – it remained a fantasy, but a most satisfying fantasy. I of course kept at it and finally figured out a way to resolve the problems, bring my recalcitrant characters back into line and end the story as planned. And I guess rather successfully, as the resulting book is one of my better sellers.

This ‘solution’ has been very beneficial, so much so that it has almost become standard in our house. As I near the end of a book The Husband has become canny enough to read my moods – and at certain times generally stay out of my way for his own safety! In these times he asks, “Is it time to call for the T-Rex?” If I say yes, he usually knows that it would be wise for him either to cook dinner or take me out. (I am so blessed to have him…)

As the word of this development spread through the family my nephew (who shares my somewhat skewed sense of humor) gave me a plastic T-Rex about six inches tall. This little gem resides in a small box decorated to look like a lake… until it is time to call him out; then he sits in proud glory on my desk, just waiting to devour any misbehaving characters.

Hey – it works for me, and no one ever said that writers have to be sane all the time!

The Murder Person

by Janis Patterson

After the wonderful reception of my last two blogs on the Murder House I couldn’t stop thinking that it was foolish to limit our villain just to the interior of an average house. Murder can be just as deadly and diabolical with what our villain has on his person. Of course, it will require more knowledge, more planning, even more daring than in the theoretically private environs of a house, but a canny villain can be just as deadly with what is on their body.

Of course, there are the obvious things – a belt or scarf or even a necklace for a garotte or perhaps in the right circumstances smothering, a concealed knife or gun, even a blunt instrument such as a few rolls of coins in a sock or scarf – the ‘cosh’ so beloved of old-style gangsters. However – while effective, those tools are crude and totally lacking in imagination. The canny mystery writer wants something more stylish, more imaginative… and less traceable.

The first thing that comes to mind is those sky-high stiletto heels worn by young fashionistas. Properly applied to a suitably vulnerable portion of the anatomy – say the nasal cavity into the brain, or the temple, or with the right knowledge of anatomy the brain stem or any of the major arteries, especially in the neck or groin – they can be very deadly. That is, once our murderer is sure they can walk in them without falling or attention-drawing staggering – something I was never able to master even in my youth. Another drawback is the relatively short space between the heel tip and the beginning of the sole – usually no more than 2 ½ – 3 inches. That would constrict the field of effective use and rule out punctures to the heart.

A nice touch would be to have the murderer be a man dressed as a woman who immediately divests himself of the female clothing – where it could be neither found nor traced to him, a challenging exercise in itself. I’m sure a clever writer could overcome that, though.

Let’s get more creative. Remember a generation or so ago a man was killed on a London street by the means of a small (I mean really tiny) ball filled with ricin (made from the castor bean plant, remember?) injected from the tip of an umbrella by a seeming passer-by? That’s very convoluted and unless the killer is a scientist very dangerous way of getting rid of someone, but it worked. As I remember it took the authorities years to figure it out. However, it has been proved to work and if it fits your scenario, go for it.

More workable are more common poisons, and unless the murderer and victim meet quite often so a long-term poisoning is feasible, they have to be fast-acting. Again there is the crushed OTC pain reliever which will kill over time after one dose by creating a cascade liver failure. This has the benefit of death occurring long – sometimes weeks – after the murderer has dosed the victim, but one drawback is that the resulting necessary powder is a fairly large amount and the taste is quite bitter. However, if the murderer is clever, he can carry a lethal dose on his person, give it all to the victim in some innocuous fashion and, once sure the victim has ingested it all, get away scot-free.

One of the classic means is the poison ring. After all, if it worked for Lucretia Borgia, it should work for our villain. An anecdote – my father was a wonderful and intelligent man who had the same wacky sense of humor as I. Our family had just come back from a trip to Mexico, where Daddy had bought me a poison ring, which I still have. It was a cheap tourist thing, with an obvious hinge on the side of the stone that wouldn’t fool any reasonably alert person. Daddy used saccharine tablets in his coffee, and in play – since he could never remember to bring his tablets with him – I started putting them in my poison ring. Instead of giving them to him, I simply started dumping them into his coffee cup, which Daddy and I both thought highly amusing. (Yes, we were easily amused!) My mother’s thoughts on our charade are not suitable for public pixilation, but she was a very starchily correct lady. How she must have suffered with my father’s and my antics!

Anyway. One day we were having lunch at our club and Daddy was involved in a conversation with a colleague when the waitress came by to fill his coffee cup. As was our custom I reached over, opened my ring and dumped two saccharine tablets into his coffee. The colleague’s eyes widened and – ostentatiously accidentally – he managed to knock the cup off the table, spilling it, before Daddy could take a sip. No one ever said a word – except Mother, who said a great deal of them to Daddy and me later – but we didn’t do the poison ring thing again. Sigh. It was fun while it lasted.

However – you don’t need a real poison ring to get the benefit of similar surreptitiousness. The good ones are incredibly expensive, too. All you need is a (hopefully cheap, since your villain will probably be discarding it right after) large costume jewelry ring where the base of the stone sits high above your finger creating a fair-sized gap big enough to hold a sufficient amount of poison.

Now this is important. It is a terrible fashion faux pas to wear rings on top of gloves, but you have to protect your skin from accidental absorption of the poison. Put a circle larger than the base of the ring of Liquid Glove or NuSkin (there are other brands, too – these are the only ones I can remember at the moment) to create a barrier between your skin and the poison. Depending on the size of the ring and the situation your villain will have to practice to be able to get the poison from under the ring into something your victim will ingest without drawing undue attention.

Now this is important. Once the poison has been delivered, your villain must get rid of the under-ring barrier. As it contains both poison and your contact DNA and possibly your fingerprints, that little circle of fake skin – probably between the size of a quarter and a half-dollar – is a conviction ready to happen, so you must be very careful of how it is disposed of.

For Heaven’s sake, do not eat it – there might be enough residual poison to do your villain a mischief. Don’t just throw it away in a handy waste can, either; destroy it. Cut it into teeny-tiny pieces and flush it, making sure all of it enters the sewer system. Burn it and if there is an ash residue, flush it. Whatever you decide, just make sure it is thoroughly, completely destroyed with no hope of being reconstructed. How many villains have been caught because of inadequate aftercare?

By now you have probably decided that I am thoroughly warped, and you might be right. However – this post has gone on much too long and I haven’t finished. So – if you are brave, or equally warped, think about coming back next month when I (hopefully) finish up with The Murder Person.

The Murder House

by Janis Patterson

In the real world most murders are common, unimaginative things – shooting, stabbing, strangling, blow(s) from a blunt or not so blunt object, occasionally a drowning. Pretty much routine and little finesse.

In a fictional world, however, writers have to be more creative than that. Readers want style and creativity, and most of them marvel at the variety of murder weapons that exist. Exotic poisons, strange firearms, garrotes of unknown material… all so exotic that they are easy for the police or private detective to track down and say, “It was so-and-so who killed him in the library with a whatever…” Then the reader wonders at how could anyone live where the tools of such murderous mayhem are common.

They never stop to think that the average American home is an arsenal of very practical murder weapons. Right – even right now in your own home. Obviously every house has large knives in the kitchen, screwdrivers and shovels, scarves or pantyhose or even curtain-pull rope lying around; some have guns. But even those are all pretty mundane. There are even more murderous riches if one thinks creatively.

(These are only informational examples for writers and mystery readers – please don’t try these at home!)

Grind up a piece of crystal ware (the thin kind works best) until it is a fine powder, then add it to someone’s food.

Certain over-the-counter pain relievers can, if given in specific quantity over a limited amount of time, can cause catastrophic organ failure. (And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones – I repeat, this is purely an informational think piece, not an instruction manual!)

Even a ball point pen jabbed into the neck or groin can cause a rapid and fatal exsanguination if it breaks one of the arteries, but this implies a certain knowledge of anatomy, which can be a clue to the perpetrator.

The water in a vase which held a large bunch of narcissus stems for a fair length of time can be fatal if ingested, but as with all organics getting the right (i.e., strong enough to cause death) dosage can be difficult to estimate.

Certain flowers chopped up into a salad can be fatal, but see the warning above.

There’s the classic case (from Hitchcock, I believe) of the wife who beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the policemen who were investigating her husband’s death. Considering the outrageous price of lamb these days, I assume a large beef or pork roast (preferably bone-in for more heft) would work just as well.

If it’s winter and you have a wood-burning fireplace, a log can be effective as a weapon and then burnt. It can be wrapped in something (perhaps a towel and then a garbage bag?) to keep trace evidence of the wood from adhering on or in the victim.

Plastic wrap from the kitchen or from a dry-cleaners’ bag or a garbage bag can suffocate a victim most efficiently – just be sure to get rid of it thoroughly.

Every household is just full of poisons – for the garden, for bugs, for cleaning, etc. – but one must be careful to get the right dosage and then get rid of the container – or have a very good excuse why it’s there. There’s more to a successful poisoning than just dumping a couple of tablespoons into Uncle Whoever’s morning oatmeal!

Relatively bloodless crimes are always preferable if committed in the home – there is no way to get rid of all blood traces. No matter how much you clean, no matter how much you bleach, there is always the inevitability of a single drop going someplace and that can be enough to convict you.

Even cars are not safe. Don’t simply cut a brake line – a clean straight cut can be obvious even if the car burns. Instead take a sharp rock and pierce the line, allowing a little of the fluid to leak out at a time and making it look as if the line was damaged because of a road hazard. Just be sure to get rid of the rock and don’t touch the line or car’s undercarriage – fingerprints and smudges in the existing dirt are sure signs of tampering.

Got a smoker in the house? Soak some tobacco in a small amount of alcohol (vodka will do) and the liquid becomes a nicotine extract. Internally it will kill; depending on the toxicity, it can also be fatal when applied externally to the skin. Just be sure to not get any on yours!

Certain nutritional supplements can be ground up and added to food – some are incredibly toxic, others take a time of assiduous application to work. The best kind are the ones that occur naturally in the body and – unless there is cause to think this might have been an unnatural death they will not be tested for in an autopsy… because they occur naturally in the body!

A final thought – if you’re going to commit murder in what you think is an untraceable or exotic way, you might consider doing it in a county that has a Coroner instead of a Medical Examiner. MEs are physicians who can sometimes spot a suspicious death even if the evidence is slight – and they can do an autopsy. Coroners are usually not physicians and are elected and a lot of the time won’t call it murder unless there are obvious holes from blade or bullet or crushed body parts. If you are planning an away-from-home murder, you might want to do some discreet research!

Feeling unsafe now? This is just the tip of the informational iceberg. I’ve barely touched on the lethal objects that a clever murderer can use. The trick in a book is to choose something relatively simple and readily available that the readers will understand and can relate to. (Though not too closely, I hope!) I’ve read mysteries with exotic poisons from ones that come from plants which will grow only on some remote tropical island to the skin secretions of jungle frogs. They’re fascinating, but the question that beggars any semblance of reality is how do ordinary people get ahold of such things? When greedy John wants to do away with rich Aunt Jennifer he’s much more likely to grab a crystal glass to crush or a tin of ant poison rich with arsenic than track down an exotic poisonous frog. And if he happens to work with exotic reptiles, I sincerely hope he’s not so stupid as to ignore the fact that if Auntie died of tropical frog poison he’s going to be the prime suspect!

Although, (sound of mental wheels turning) it would be a lovely red herring and a way to frame John by his up to now goody two shoes cousin Jim who secretly has massive gambling depts… though the question would still be how did he get the stuff? What if…

Help. Stop me before I plot again.