Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.

Setting Chaos Right

by Janis Patterson

Admittedly, there is something strange about those who spend a great deal of their time in thinking up ways to do away with another of their fellow beings. Someone once wrote that a person who repeatedly tries to devise a way of killing another is either a psychopath or a mystery writer, and that sometimes the line between them blurs. I resent that. I spend a great deal of time finding ways to eradicate some poor soul, but I don’t feel like a psychopath. At least, not most of the time.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?

Aside from the fact I’m much too afraid of getting caught to even think of trying anything for real, I believe we do it because as writers and as readers we fans of murder have a very strict sense of honor and decency and justice.

Whether we’re plotting the demise of a nosy next door neighbor or creating a scheme to eradicate the populace of a distant planet, we are creating mayhem and chaos. Murder is against the natural order of things – it is unnatural, and the unnatural is disturbing to us. However – if we create it ourselves as writers, we control it. We know from the beginning that however bad things get, we can set it right and good will triumph again.

Now I can hear some of you muttering that there are many books where the killer is not punished, that he walks away unscathed. Yes, of course there are, but in the traditional mystery framework (even if it is set on a distant planet many eons in the future or the past) we know that the bad will be punished and order restored. Even if the law is not served, justice will be, and the two are not always the same thing. Sometimes a murder can be a good thing, and to punish the killer would be unfair. As was written in Texas law until not too many years ago, there are some folks who just need killing!

By contrast, real life is messy. People are murdered and the perpetrator is never caught, and sometimes even if he is he isn’t convicted. There is no guaranteed happy/good/righteous ending, and sometimes the uncertainty of that ambiguity is unbearable. I think people turn to mysteries both as readers and as writers because they need the framework of justice guaranteed to be triumphant. I know I do.

In the worlds we create horrible things happen, yes, but in the end right and justice prevail. The murderer is going to be stopped some way. Our senses of balance and security and rightness are restored. All is well.

Would it could be that way in real life.

 

A Mystery Writer’s Responsibility

by Janis Patterson

We write mysteries. It is our duty to provide our readers with a good story that has an interesting plot, accurate research, believable characters, and a satisfying ending.

It is also our responsibility to be sure that in our quest for interesting and different content we don’t turn our fictional books into training manuals. Yes, we want ways of death that rise above the common and usually sordid killings that regularly adorn our daily news, but we must walk a fine line between creating an interesting fictional killing and providing an instructional blueprint for a real one.

I think this duty of responsibility is why in so many early mysteries and in a few current ones the murder weapon is a common blunt instrument or some exotic, untraceable poison, though exotic, unknown and untraceable poisons are currently somewhat out of vogue. Current mysteries seem to be grounded much more in reality than the ones from the so-called Golden Age.

To illustrate my point, years ago I attended my first NRA convention. (By the way, if your mysteries involve firearms, I cannot recommend highly enough that you attend one – the knowledge and help there are phenomenal! It will be in Dallas next month and I definitely intend on going! I’ll probably be blogging about it.) I talked to a lot of people, getting all kinds of information and contacts for my reference file (you do have a reference file, don’t you?) when I talked to this one man who was simply entranced that I was a mystery writer. Normally I’ve found that people just love to help writers, but this guy was totally over the top. He had worked both as a firearms salesman and in a ballistics lab, and among a lot of other things gleefully told me the way to have a ballistically clean bullet. No striations. No rifling. No marks on the projectile to tell which or even what kind of gun it came from. No information except the caliber. Nothing that law enforcement could trace.

I listened intently, partially fascinated and partially revolted. It was a simple process and could be done by anyone with the IQ of a goldfish. Then he asked if I’d use it in one of my books – obviously hoping that I’d put him in there too. Horrified, I said most certainly not, begged him not to tell this process to anyone else and then explained why. He was suddenly as horrified as I – apparently he had never thought that what he regarded as an interesting curiosity could actually be used to commit a real-life untraceable killing.

And no, don’t ask me what the secret is. I destroyed that part of my notes and have deliberately forgotten how. There is some knowledge that should never be shared.

So while killing people made of pixels can be both fun and profitable, we as writers owe our readers and the world in general a sense of restraint and responsibility. I truly believe that none of us would actually use some of the stuff we know to do harm to others, but we must never forget that our stories are read by all kinds of people, some of whom might wish to do harm or even read us in search of ways to do harm. Never forget that we want to entertain, not instruct. I don’t think any of us want to be an accomplice.

Guest- L. Lee Kane

California Drinkin’

I decided I wanted to write a book about the Central Valley, where I’m now from which is a vast, hot, 300- mile-long expanse extending from Sacramento to the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the South, and has the most fertile areas in the United States for growing grapes. We produce a full 60 per cent of all the agricultural products in California and we crush 75 per cent of all wine grapes. Wineries are huge. And so are the crops.

One of the core differences between the wine industry in California and that in Europe is the people who run it. The California wine revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s was largely initiated by men and women who were not from winemaking families. After the Prohibition, which lasted 13 years there were few people to train the newcomers, including Ernest and Julio Gallo, which makes close to 70 million cases, including popular inexpensive wine and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge wines which make slightly more than 6 million cases a year. The interesting thing is that these three self-made men were self-taught. Everything they learned they read out of a book.

  • More than 90 per cent of the wine made in the United States is made in California.
  • The state’s incredibly diverse climate and geography allow California wines to be made in a profusion of styles from dozens of different grape varieties.
  • California’s winemakers are among the most innovative and open to experimentation in the world.

Of course, my book, ‘Death on the Vine’ is not so factual, I have romance, murder, intrigue, lots of money, a socio path, and revenge. Some of this has some true parts in it but for the most part, it’s fictional. I will have a sequel to the book, I haven’t quite decided on a title but again it’s set in the small town of Oakhurst, California not too far away from Yosemite. Daisy, Frisco, and a whole host of characters will play a part…and another socio path.

I think you can see from my bio that I have familiarity with socio paths and quirky characters.

I have a contest running on amazon for a free book for Death on the Vine and if you read it, review it, I’ll want to put your name in my next book and maybe we can have a contest for a new title.

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Murder on the Vine

Just before high school graduation, Daisy Murphy returns home from a football game and finds her mother standing over her abusive boyfriend’s body—holding a bloody hammer. In the aftermath, Daisy flees her home and eventually establishes a new life as an expert winemaker in the Central Valley of California. But as hard as she tries to get away from her past, the effects of that horrible night travel with her.

Detective Jake Frisco has unearthed a murder at the vineyard where Daisy is employed as the winery’s expert winemaker. It doesn’t take long to discover that Daisy is haunted by her past and carries a heavy burden. It seems that possible involvement in an unsolved murder is part of her life’s baggage. Does this put Daisy at the top of the suspect’s list? Can he put aside his growing feelings for her and follow the leads in the case, even if they take him straight to her as the murderer?

Can Daisy finally face her past and trust that the truth she offers the Detective will be enough to save her? Will she find the courage to ask for a future beyond the sorrow of her youth—a future filled with love and self-worth?

linda and Shari- croppedLinda L. Kane MA in Education, PPS, School Psychologist, and Learning Disability Specialist, is the author of Death on the Vine, Chilled to the Bones and an upcoming release of the The Black Madonna. She lives with her husband, three dogs, one bird, and eight horses in California.

www.lindaleekane.com

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.

Mind Games and Murder

by Janis Patterson

I wonder if all mystery writers are irretrievably warped?

I spent last week at the Novelists’ Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. It was held at the luxurious TradeWinds resort, a place of which dreams are made. The weather was good – a little rain, a lot of wind, but mostly warm and sunny. The resort amenities are incredible – this is our fourth time here and I still haven’t been able to do all the ‘resorty’ things I want to, such as going down the big slide and doing the paddle boats on the carefully maintained artificial creek or sing at karaoke night. (I’m not lazy – it’s just the conference is so intense and it’s so wonderful to be able just to sit and talk with other writers.)

The resort is perfection, and the staff works hard to keep it that way. (And I’m positive none of my dire imaginings have ever happened there in reality – it is a lovely place in every sense of the word.) I mean, even the brick walks are swept several times a day to keep the beach sand off. Everywhere you look there are staff members in their trademark blue and yellow Hawaiian style shirts going around making things perfect, just like little elves. The restaurants and bars are great and to get up early in the morning and watch from our balcony as the day is born to the music of the surf is heavenly.

So why are my thoughts swamped with murder and mayhem? You’d think I would just be enjoying the conference and my friends and the beauty, but no – so  far I’ve hatched a bunch of plots that involve poisoning, stabbing, international intrigue and smuggling, all located in this consciously perfect setting.

Violence and crime are terrible no matter where they occur, but it seems they are worse in places of such beauty and perfection, and therefore more alluring to the mystery writer. The vast number of employees, each in their yellow and blue Hawaiian shirts, are an invitation to a villainous outsider outsider to use the uniform as camouflage. After all, with the exception of our chambermaid, I don’t think I’ve seen the same employee twice.

Am I the only one who looks at the minutiae of life through such a murderous lens? In an arboretum full of beautiful plants I am drawn to the poisonous ones. In an art museum I find myself thinking not of the beautiful paintings, but of what a wonderful place it would be to hide a body. A shopping mall? Just too full of murderous opportunities to list.

People often ask me where I get my ideas – or, worse, offer to sell me theirs. Getting the ideas is not the problem; most of the creative people I know have many more than they can ever use. The problem is deciding which idea to use – and it takes a bunch that fit together seamlessly to make a good book. The bad part is that you can only fit so many widely different murders into one book!

Worst of all, when you are surrounded by such beauty and comfort and perfection the urge to indulge in a little villainous mayhem is far too much to resist. I think I’ve decided on smuggling… or maybe jealousy… or perhaps a disputed inheritance… as the inciting incident. Check with me next  year and we’ll see how the story turned out!

Christmas is Coming

by Janis Patterson

For once I’m way ahead of a deadline. It’s a situation that doesn’t happen very often, and I’m going to enjoy every bit of it!

A couple of months ago a couple of mystery writer friends and I were having lunch and somehow the subject of holiday anthologies came up. They seem to be a popular genre and – as all of us are always interested in upping our sales – the idea of us doing a Christmas anthology of murder mystery stories appeared (sorry, gang – I don’t remember whose idea it originally was) and everyone loved it.

My mind – like most writer’s – is a strange and fearsome place. Immediately a story began forming in the swirling and dangerous depths of my imagination and in spite of a looming book deadline, a much-looked-forward-to and lengthy trip to Atlanta to the NRA convention coming up and a vicious case of food poisoning (the worst I’ve ever had) I started writing immediately, much to the detriment of my current work in progress. Some stories just need to be told immediately.

Christmas is supposed to be such a happy time of family and presents and religious devotion, but it seems like I remember reading somewhere that more people commit suicide at Christmas than any other time of the year, which is horrifically sad. Even though I can’t call up the statistics, it seems I also remember there is always a jump in murders and assaults during the holidays as well – which is sad too, but it makes the season a natural for tales of murder and dark deeds.

I have always believed that stories should be just as long as they need be to tell the story. Our group had decided on novellas rather than full novels, and as novellas go, mine is short – truly a novelette (does anyone use that term any more?) at just over 15,000 words. But the story is a very small slice of time and a very concentrated tale with a sparse cast of characters, so that’s all it needed. I could of course pad the word count, but that would dilute the story.
The story? It’s a delicious mix of a family Christmas in a snowbound mansion and a horrible relative who is found dead on Christmas morning. He has been stabbed… and garroted… and poisoned. I have always believed in overkill. The title is, appropriately enough, KILLING HARVEY.

Anyway, the story was finished before we left for the NRA convention – for which I’m glad, as the convention gave me so much information and so many story ideas that my head is about to explode.

If all goes as planned, our anthology should be for sale online sometime mid to late November. If the project falls apart, I’ll release the story by myself. So – be warned : either way KILLING HARVEY will be available, so please plan to buy lots of copies. It will be the perfect virtual stocking-stuffer.

Now as my original deadline approaches with the speed and grace of a runaway train, I must get back to my work in process.

Fingerprinting by Paty Jager

canstockphoto17652788My current work in progress has been interesting and fun. I’ve had numerous conversations with forensic and law enforcement employees about fingerprints.

While the fingerprints on an object doesn’t help find the killer in my book, the illusion they are important draws the reader into a speculation of what-if and hopefully lets an important piece of the puzzle become a throw-away thought.

What I discovered while asking questions about how fingerprints are stored and who might have access to the fingerprints came from a variety of people and, not surprisingly, they all had a bit different take on it all.  Which led me to believe, I could do what I wanted in discovering who had their hands on the weapon. 😉

When I looked up fingerprinting, I discovered there are many jobs where fingerprints are required.  Medical, educational, and of course law enforcement. But also, companies that contract government work.

What I wanted to know dealt with my medical examiner, a local doctor given the honorary title and honor of pronouncing people dead, and a person who came from another country but had gained U.S. citizenship thirty years ago. Would they have fingerprints in “the system”? The answers were varied on the M.E.. Yes, most would have had their prints taken, but they wouldn’t be held in a local police database or AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). They also said my new citizen would not have had fingerprints taken unless arrested or had a job that required it, and they would only be in the system if arrested.

So millions of people have their prints taken for jobs. What happens to those prints?

According to the law enforcement people I contacted, the employees either send the prints to a local print collection business or they are sent to AFIS. If the prints come up clean, the ten-print cards are then either put in the employees file or trashed. They don’t go into a national system.

So, if you haven’t done a crime and you are fingerprinted, you have nothing to worry about. And your prints shouldn’t wind up in any databases. But what if you had a crooked person running one of the databases, and they did keep your prints to use when committing crimes????

That just may be another book!

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photo source: © Can Stock Photo / peshkova

 

Body, Body, Who’s Got A Body?

by Janis Patterson

On one of my email loops there has been a discussion about whether or not a cozy mystery has to include a murder. Both yes and no answers are plentiful and while the discussion has not been acrimonious, it has been lively.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. I am most definitely not a fan of excessive blood and gore, but it would have to be a most outstanding puzzle to hold my interest without at least one body. That said, I don’t like seeing someone dispatched ‘onscreen’ with fulsome details of the exploding blood spattering the walls and every dying scream lovingly recorded, etc. That is the pornography of death and the reason I don’t read some of the highly regarded mystery/thriller writers. The writers can be wonderful craftsmen and most are deservedly very popular… I don’t blame anyone who likes them; they’re just not my cup of tea.

Let’s face it, it is exceedingly difficult to have a believable and attention grabbing/holding mystery without a body. In our discussion only a few people could think of even one – and I was surprised that there were as many as were mentioned. Almost everyone said without hesitation that to be a mystery, there had to be a body.

Apparently that’s one thing on which everyone will have to agree to disagree. I unashamedly align myself with the “there has to be a body” contingent. Even in a light-hearted humorous tale, the act of murder is a heinous one. It creates a high stakes situation that almost no other situation can. (I’m not talking about those find-the-whatever-or-the-world-will-end-scenario; those are an entirely different kettle of fish!)

I have a friend who was once contacted to ghostwrite a contract series of ‘wholesome’ mysteries; the company would give her detailed outlines and she would write the books according to their specifications. The books were short and the money fairly decent, but she turned the contract down. At the time I was incredibly cash-strapped (even more than usual) and incredulous that she would turn down what seemed like easy money.

“There is no way,” she said, “I could write those stories like that and make them interesting to people. There wasn’t any murder. There wasn’t even any crime.”

A mystery? With no body OR crime? What, I had asked, was the mystery? Her answer floored me. It seemed that the mystery was who was ringing all the doorbells in this quaint little village and then running away. A mystery? Really? (Remember, these were books for adults, not very young readers.)  Then she really blew me away when she gave me the ‘solution’… the mysterious bell ringer was a cat.

A cat? Really? Didn’t these people ever hear of motivation? Or goal? Or conflict? Now I have a cat who opens doors like crazy – turns the knobs with incredible dexterity – when she wants to get into the other room, usually to chew on something or find food she isn’t supposed to have. What motivation could a cat have for ringing a doorbell? To be invited in for tea? In a different era, to sell Fuller Brushes or Avon? Cats are smarter than most people admit, but that goes beyond any cat I ever heard of!

Now that was years ago, and I don’t know if that book was ever written; nor do I wish to be scornful of it. If someone can get joy out of reading such a story, more power to them. Tastes differ. I would just have a difficult time finding any interest in such a tale. For me, a mystery has to have something at stake – something worthwhile that can justify expenditure of such time and energy.

Mysteries – good mysteries – don’t really need to have a murder, but they do need a good mystery.

Splits, Murders and Happy Endings

by Janis Patterson

I have a split personality. No, really it’s true. I do.

Part of the time – as Janis Patterson – I delight in writing the foulest murder, stories of people who exterminate their fellows without a thought or qualm – and what is really scary is that I like it! I delight in finding new and obscure ways of killing someone, and am absolutely over the moon when I discover how such a heinous act can be gotten away with scot-free. (The only unfunny part of this was when in real life a truly creepy person asked me if I do consulting. Brrrrr…..)

However – the rest of the time – as Janis Susan May – love-across-time-cover I’m an unabashed romantic who writes tender stories of two imperfect people surmounting obstacles and finally find the perfection of true love. I adore giving them trials and misunderstandings and difficulties and differences of opinion, making it seem that they will never get together… then just when things look darkest bringing them together in a satisfying happily-ever-after ending.

And never, hopefully, shall the twain meet.

So what causes this rather radical dichotomy? I have no idea. I just know that some stories demand romance and hearts and flowers, while others have to have revenge and murder. Those of you who know me know a little about my working process – I don’t plot and I don’t do character sheets or anything like that. The stories just come… and so do the characters, independent people who simply walk in, tell me their name (and Heaven help me if I try to change it) and what they’re going to do. Far too many times I don’t feel like I am writing but instead merely transcribing.

It makes for an interesting work process. On the other hand, I am never bored. And neither are my readers.

For example, my Ancient Egyptian time travel romance PASSION’S CHOICE is now not only a standalone novel, it is also included in the Love Across Time box set – ten full novels by bestselling authors, right now on sale for 99 cents at Amazon! An unbelievable bargain you should go get immediately! PASSION’S CHOICE is the story of Elissa, an average young American woman on a tour in Egypt when she falls over the railing at Deir el Bahri, temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. The only thing is, when she hits the ground the temple is under construction, and the general in charge of the project believes her to be a pleasure woman. (You can guess what that is, can’t you?) Before she knows what’s going on, Elissa finds herself in a dangerous masquerade at the pharaoh’s court, one that not only puts the life of the man she loves at risk, but the fate of Egypt – and perhaps the future – as well.pc-web-small

By contrast, my newest murder mystery release is about arrogant, wealthy, aged sleuth Flora Melkiot, who has been called the dark side of Miss Marple. In MURDER IN DEATH’S WAITING ROOM, Flora has been confined to a rehab facility by her painfully conventional daughter, an act that infuriates Flora, who says it was only a little traffic accident and she could manage perfectly well with a broken wrist in her own home. Then first one of the patients and then another are brutally murdered, and Flora once again finds herself in the position of solving the crimes. As always, Flora is convinced that she can do anything… and usually she not only can, she does. When drugs get added into the mix, what should be a place of healing comes perilously close to becoming a death trap. midwr-web-promo-small

See? Two completely different kinds of writing, genres, even characters, but just one of me. One of my longtime beta readers – who has read almost every word I’ve ever written – looked at me one day and asked how I did it. How did I manage two such different genres, two such different conventions, two such different worldviews and do both of them equally well. I thought for a minute, then gave her the only answer that was possible.

I don’t have a clue.