Murder Without Violence

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I had the great pleasure this past weekend to attend a meeting of my local chapter of the Sisters in Crime (the Delaware Valley Chapter). The guest speaker for the meeting is a Conservator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which is, coincidentally, where I earned my PhD in Anthropology). Because it is a museum of archaeology rather than fine arts, Molly Gleeson conserves artifacts and other specimens. That includes human remains.

It was a fascinating talk — as they always are at these meetings. Ms. Gleeson prefaced her talk by warning us that she was going to show us images of human remains, then admitted that for this particular audience that might not be a problem. We all write and read about murder. We’re used to human remains, right?

IMG_2463Well…maybe. A murder mystery can be many, many things. It can be light hearted and funny. It can be chic lit. It can be dark, gritty. And it can be gory, a story of violence and evil. When choosing a new book to read, a mystery reader has to know what she’s getting into — or she reads at her own peril.

Personally, I prefer not to read gruesome stories. I particularly avoid books that include rape scenes, but I generally skim through (or avoid altogether) stories with too much gory detail, too much vividly painted violence. I write the books I like to read. Relatively dark mysteries, gritty even, but with the violence taking place almost entirely off the page.

As an aside, one of the most beautiful death scenes I’ve ever read was written by the late, great Ruth Rendell (who, incidentally, did not shy away from violence when she felt it was called for). I always picture that pretty corpse floating peacefully and elegantly down the river, surrounded by wildflowers, whenever I’m trying to write my own murder scenes. I have not yet achieved Rendell’s level of artistic description of death, but I’ll keep trying.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 2.05.07 PMWhich brings me back to the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sisters in Crime. Each month, a technical speaker is invited to come to our group, to share his or her knowledge of biology, ways to kill a person, how crime scenes are handled, even about ancient methods of human preservation (mummies). To an outsider, we probably seem like a pretty gory bunch.

Quite the contrary. In our group, you’ll find cozy writers, young adult writers, and many, like me, who write traditional mysteries that are high on mystery but low on sex and violence. But one thing we have in common: we’re all well-informed on those gory topics that inform the background of our stories, but don’t make an appearance on the page.

How about you? How much violence do you want to see in the mysteries you read?

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What a Difference a Year Makes

by Janis Patterson

Ta-da! It’s really real! Finally!

As you probably know, one year ago (almost to this exact day!) The Husband and I went to Egypt to research a novel. My dear friend Dr. Dirk Huyge had invited us to come spend a few days at the El Kab dig house, which is formally known as Bayt Clarke. The house, built in 1906 by an English Egyptologist named Somers Clarke, is reputed to be haunted by his ghost. Unfortunately, Mr. Clarke did not make an appearance – though it wouldn’t have been difficult for him, as his grave is in the courtyard – but the rest of the trip was magical, from our time at the dig house to the flat we rented on the West Bank in Luxor that overlooked the Gurneh hills.

The result is my new book A KILLING AT EL KAB. It’s a straight murder mystery, but with the extra benefit of the reader being able to see an archaeological dig from the inside. Dirk was kind enough to be my advisor, reading the book in chunks as I wrote it so to be sure that it was as accurate as possible.

El Kab eBOOK COVER

I started the book while we were still at the dig house. I remember sitting very early one morning pretty much in the dark (pre-dawn) at the eating table on a most uncomfortable chair with a huge French door overlooking the Nile in front of me. I was typing furiously as the story danced through my brain faster than my fingers could move. One of my best memories of that trip is one afternoon (when the entire crew worked indoors after a long morning out at the excavation) I was sitting typing and could hear two of the crew members walking very slowly behind me. In tones of awe and wonder one whispered to the other, “She’s writing a novel while we watch!”

The official release date for A KILLING AT EL KAB is the 20th of March, chosen months ago because we were at the dig house on that date. I had hoped to have everything ready to release by then. Isn’t it true that when you really care about something everything that can will go wrong? Oh, the electronic versions of the book are great – the print version is apparently cursed.

So I made an executive decision. I took the electronic version and put it up as a pre-order on Amazon while I am wrestling with the malign cybergremlins who are playing with the paperback. This is a new thing for me – I’ve never done a pre-order before. After hearing some tales from other writers about the intricacy of putting up a book on pre-order, all I can say either I am an astounding genius (not!) or Amazon has made the pre-order process very easy (more likely). Anyway, it is available.

I made another executive decision – during the pre-order period the price is only $2.99 – it will go up to the regular price of $4.99 on the official release day.

The Husband laughs at my ‘executive decisions’ as I am terrible at making decisions – seeing me trying to choose from a menu is painful, as are my deliberations on what to wear to almost any function.

Some things just are ‘right,’ though, and A KILLING AT EL KAB is one of them. I am a very proud book mommy!

Researching a Mystery by Paty Jager

SH Mug Art (2)

I’m not a forensic coroner or a lawyer or even a law enforcer. I’m the wife of a rancher and I write murder mystery.

As I write this next book in my Shandra Higheagle Mystery Series I’ve come across questions that have required answers by professionals. When I start a book I know how the victim will die and where. But I ultimately need to know what their injuries would look like say if they fall off a cliff or are stabbed with a blunt object or shot at close range with a small caliber gun.

These are all things coroners have seen and can tell me. But how do I get a coroner on speed-dial or in my case speed e-mail? I’m part of a yahoo loop that is filled with every kind of occupation a mystery or murder writer might need expertise about. The yahoo loop is crimescenewriter@yahoogroups.com

That’s how I connected with a coroner who not only answered my question I put on the loop but also emailed back and forth with me as I asked more questions and what-if’s. She has lots of knowledge and being a budding writer is willing to help out fellow writers.

Writing the opening and how the victim is killed and what is discovered went well, knowing I had the correct information and knowledge. Then I brought in some secondary characters and a sub-plot. For the sub-plot I needed some legal information. I turned to my niece who is a para-legal and what she couldn’t answer she knew where to send me to find the information. After my niece and I discussed the issue I wanted brought up in my book and how I wanted it dealt with, she suggested I contact a law enforcement officer.  I happen to have one in the family. 😉

I sent off an email explaining what I wanted to do, how would it be handled, and after some back and forth ,that element of the sub-plot was worked out.

Writing mystery books is my favorite writing experience. Not only do I have to puzzle out a mystery that will keep the reader thinking, I have to make sure the forensics and laws will work in the story and enhance the overall realness of the crime and the killer.

Have you read books where you could tell the writer hadn’t researched the laws or forensics? Did it bother you while reading the book or is that something that doesn’t bother you?

~*~

Award-winning author Paty Jager and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. She not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it. All Paty’s work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Her penchant for research takes her on side trips that eventually turn into yet another story.

You can learn more about Paty at:

her blog; Writing into the Sunset

her website; http://www.patyjager.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How long should a Series be? by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)When I came up with the idea for a mystery series, the second thing I thought about after bringing Shandra Higheagle to life was: Can I write enough stories to make this a long running series?

So I sat down and thought about where she lives- a ski resort; what she does- a potter; and then the people she is closest to. Her family history and heritage also can play into several story linesBookmark Front. All of these things figured into stories I could write to expand the series.

I’m also finding that as I write a story, something will pop up that sends me to my list of story ideas and adding another one. Also, things I hear and see on the news starts and idea for a premise of a story.

I figured if Sue Grafton could write 26 books with the same sleuth, Janet Evanovich went for Tricky Twenty-Two, and Tony HIllerman put out 19, I should be able to come up with that many mysteries for Shandra to solve without her or the stories getting stale.

Right now I’m researching for Book 5. I know who will be killed and who will be suspected, but I still need to write up my suspect chart, which will happen after I know more about the murder venue. Usually by this stage I have a title for the book. This one isn’t coming to me as easily. But I’m sure by the time I get to the middle of the book, I’ll know my title.

If you read series, has there come a time when you’ve found the series going stale? Why do you think that happened?

www.patyjager.net

Writing into the Sunset

 

Ax-murderess or Victim by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)I recently ran across a story in the local paper written by an Oregon State University Professor. He brought to light the first female murderer in Oregon’s territorial prison. Her story is interesting to my mystery writer mind. Back when she took an ax to her husband, they didn’t take spousal abuse into consideration for a woman’s actions. But this story lends itself well to several directions a mystery writer could take it.

Charity Lamb and her husband traveled to Oregon Territory in 1852 via the Oregon Trail. They had five children ages, nineteen to a newborn baby. The Oregon Territory at that time had few woman and the family was busy trying to build a house and starting crops.

The husband on several occasions had punched, kicked, and thrown a hammer at Charity leaving a large gash on her forehead.

The nineteen-year-old daughter fancied she was in love with a drifter. The man was also smitten with the daughter and showed Charity kindness. Mr. Lamb refused to allow the two to marry and forbid the daughter to converse with the man when he left the area. Charity helped her daughter write and mail letters to the man. Mr. Lamb caught Charity with one of the letters and told her he would kill her before he’d let her leave.

A day later as he was leaving to go hunting, Mr. Lamb turned at the gate, drew up his rifle, and aimed it at Charity. One of the children noticed and he turned the barrel, shooting into a tree. That day Charity and the daughter planned a way to murder Mr. Lamb. That night as they all sat down to dinner, Charity excused herself and walked back in with an ax and hit Mr. Lamb twice with it, making a two inch cut in his skull. Mr. Lamb wasn’t dead. Charity and her daughter fled to the neighbors and a doctor took care of Mr. Lamb until he died a week later. But not before telling everyone he didn’t mistreat his wife.

Charity and her daughter were looked upon as ruthless women, until the children were put on the stand and told of the abuse Mr. Lamb had given their mother. The daughter’s trial was first. She was acquitted. But at that time the courts couldn’t figure out how to try Charity. It was self-defense but not really as the man was sitting at the table not attacking her when she axed him. Which made it seem like insanity, but they found her sane.

And so, Charity Lamb received second-degree murder with life in prison. She was the only woman at the territorial prison. Years later she was sent to the insane asylum where she lived out the rest of her sentence, dying in 1879.

From this story I see spousal abuse as a means for someone to murder and in the case of the daughter she wanted to be with her love. Two good reasons to kill, well for a character in a murder mystery not in real life. But it does happen in real life, so using these premises in a book, would work in the reader’s mind.

What do you think? Would a story like Charity’s be plausible or unbelievable in a book today?

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Writing into the Sunset

 

The Perfect Murder Weapon

by Janis Patterson

We all believe that killing someone is easy as pie (remember, I’m speaking of in pixels only here) but it’s not as simple as it seems. The main trick is doing the deed and getting away with it. I mean, letting your character get away with it. Harder still is to make it so your sleuth can find enough clues to solve the mystery without making your killer seem like an idiot or your sleuth some sort of psychic/savant. What’s really hard is when your villain is so smart you really have to work to make it possible for your sleuth to catch him. I’ve had that problem in my current WIP, so I know whereof I speak!

One of the main things to catching a killer is the murder weapon. Guns and knives have traditionally been regarded as men’s weapons of choice, while poison is regarded as a more of a woman’s weapon, the rationale being that women are dainty little creatures of great sensibility who don’t like to see blood and gore. Really? And they kill people? Give me a break.

One of the main choices of murder weapon is dependent on its availability and traceability. A gun? Who owns it and how did the murderer get it? With the forensic ballistics available today – not to mention the creeping cancer of the gun control nuts – it’s harder and harder to make it believable that a villain can just grab a gun, shoot someone and get away with it. Of course, there are workarounds. The gun could be stolen. The gun could be bought on the black market. The gun could be ‘borrowed’ with the intent of framing the legitimate owner. Something else to be considered is that so much information needed to catch the villain – ballistics, registration, etc – is not available to an amateur sleuth unless they can wheedle it out of a policeman.

Forensics today can trace a knife down to the minutest measurement and shape and, if it is unusual enough, to the brand and store from which it came. If I were going to commit a murder with a knife, I’d go to the local Target or WalMart and buy the commonest knife I could, then afterwards boil it in bleach to kill any blood on it and donate it to some charity or other or leave it in a batch of kitchen utensils at a garage sale – after carefully wiping off all fingerprints. Of course, this is assuming the killer is strong enough both internally and externally to handle the strength necessary and the resultant blood, which is going to get all over his clothes. If you want to see how hard it is to stab someone, take your murder knife and stab a big, thick roast. It’s hard to get a knife deep enough to cause a fatal wound, but not as hard as stabbing a real life person, because the roast isn’t fighting you back!

Then there’s poison. First of all, where does the killer get it? Today so many of our commonly available compounds have had their poisonous elements removed or neutered. There’s nicotine, of course, sold for e-cigarettes, and it’s commonly available, but how do you know how much to use, and then there’s the problem of getting it into your victim. Same with prescription meds, which are generally fairly traceable because of limited availability. There are also the plant based poisons, but first you have to know about them, and again think of how much to use for a fatal does and how you’re going to get the resultant product into your victim Unfortunately for the killer plant based poisons are notorious for being both variable and unreliable. Poison contents vary according to the plant, the location where it was grown, the season of the year – and the phase of the moon for all I know. You never really know if you’ve gauged your dosage correctly until your victim either dies or survives. Also, this is considered rather esoteric knowledge, known to a smallish group of people (other than mystery writers) and fairly easily traceable.

For the hardy, there is always the staple of your two hands and a good old fashioned strangling. Of course, you have to know the victim well enough to get that close to him, and you have to be strong, for he will be fighting you. Strangling takes a great deal of strength as well, which basically rules out the delicately built person strangling a larger one. It also is harder than it seems. Life is tenacious, and it takes at least four minutes if not longer to strangle a person until death is assured, no matter how easy and quick it seems on television. Same objections with smothering. Unless the victim is unconscious your villain will both have to subdue and smother. Not easy.

So – is there a perfect murder weapon? Not that I know of. Every one has plusses and minuses, and in its way that is perfect for the mystery writer. You can choose one that fits your villain and your victim, but each method has built-in clues and difficulties that can, with a little accuracy and lots of creativity on your part, make it possible for your sleuth to capture your killer, no matter how smart that villain thinks himself to be.

Also, if you’d like to read the article The American Research Center in Egypt did on me and my upcoming novel A KILLING AT EL KAB, here’s the link – http://www.arce.org/news/u162

That Could Kill Someone by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)As a murder mystery writer there are times when I have to acknowledge the fact my brain and actions could lead one to think I’m a psychopath or serial killer. 😉

I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to kill someone that is easy or unusual. Not because there is anyone in particular I’m thinking of offing, but because I need to find unusual and hard to discover mysteries/ ways of murder for my amateur sleuth and detective to come up against.

A recent trip on the Steens Mountains in eastern Oregon had my mind flashing in overdrive with scenarios that could happen on an innocent trek to the wilderness. Around one small lake where people camp and fish the undergrowth was so thick a person could be killed and their body hidden for quite some time before either the smell aroused a curious dog or coyote or kids playing would find it. The body could be hidden for weeks, months, or years, depending on when the killing happened and if there were people around to smell the decaying body. The high precipice where a person can look down over a mile to the Alvord desert is also an innocent, yet deadly spot. The vistas are breathtaking. Someone struck in awe of the sight could easily have a miss-step or push that sends them plummeting to their death.

Another interesting tourist spot is Diamond Craters. These large craters caused by lava tubes and bubbles are deep. The upper edge is lined with uneven, craggy rocks that could easily trip a person to fall head first into the crater and land on large boulders, up-heaved lava waves or a rattlesnake. Once the victim has fallen into the crater and is injured, if no one came along during a hot summer day, and if the injuries from the fall or a snake didn’t get them first, the hot sun and no water would give a person heat stroke.

Even the local historical museum had a storage room of sorts in the back that held antique items that had yet to be put in the museum. There were several long, heavy metal branding irons that could easily be swung with enough force to crack a skull and the body could be shoved behind a large wooden sign leaning against the wall. Or the rusted metal plow hanging from the ceiling could “accidentally” fall on an unsuspecting victim.

Even my own property has several places if not careful someone with a grudge could send a boulder hurtling down the side of the hill to wipe out an unsuspecting victim.

Double Duplicity (652x1024)I’ve always had an imagination that would put my family and friends into danger now I do it with my characters in the Shandra Higheagle Mystery Series.

www.patyjager.net

Writing into the Sunset

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Why We Kill

by Janis Patterson

It is not, as some of my friends have said, because I am an old grump who wants to do away with everyone who annoys me. Not all the time, at least.

That said, however, taking someone whom you dislike intensely, who has been egregiously rude/cruel/unmannerly/whatever, and offing them can be very relaxing and therapeutic. (Of course, I’m talking about killing only in pixels.) It’s cheaper than therapy, can be done multiple times if the first time is not satisfying enough and no one gets really hurt. And, if you’re lucky, you can make a little money.

But why do people want to read about people being killed? After all, killing is messy. It’s permanent. And it’s very very illegal. I think the reasons are as varied as the readers. And the writers. Sublimation. Wish fulfillment. Excitement. The thrill of the chase. All basic human emotions, but I think the main reason is that in a mystery novel we want the assurance that all will turn out right – the murderer will be caught and properly punished. Balance in the world is restored. Justice is served.

I believe every rational person has a deep sense of justice. A lot of times the murder is committed because in some possibly twisted way it fulfills the murderer’s sense of justice – as incomprehensible as it might be to anyone else.

When we write or read mysteries we are not only indulging in escapism, we are shoring up the foundations of justice. The crime is solved. Balance returns. Our inner world is stable once more, even if the real world is far less simple or predictable.

Which means that we as writers are fortunate. I mean, how many people can say that we not only entertain, but we contribute to the happiness and mental health of the world? And all by killing people…

Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.