Who? When?

by Janis Patterson

If there’s one thing in the writing world you learn very quickly it’s that no matter what you do you cannot please everyone. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to please anyone! Another thing you learn is that the ‘rules’ change almost as quickly as the weather.

Well, I don’t believe in ‘rules’ – other than the hard and fast ones like good grammar and spelling and a cohesive, interesting book, of course. What I dislike are the God-like pronouncements of how a story should be structured. Such as in romance, for example, say you have to have a ‘cute meet’ between the hero and heroine in the first three pages or (in certain kinds of romance) a hot sexual encounter no later than the second chapter. A corollary in mystery is that the body has to appear early in the book – ideally in the first three pages.

Well, being by nature a dedicated contrarian, I find such ‘rules’ to be inimical to the integrity of a story. They smack of ‘writing by pattern’ and while each genre has certain expectations like as a happy ending and justice done such arbitrary ‘rules’ are the antithesis of creativity… and all too often good storytelling.

That said, I have written – sometimes at the ‘behest’ (i.e., orders) of a publisher or out of pure mischief –  some stories that follow these ‘rules’ and some which most delightfully turned them on their heads. One example is a Regency Romance (written as Janis Susan May) where the hero and heroine, though lovers a decade or so before, do not meet in the here-and-now present of the novel until the last chapter. This particular book has won a couple of awards… and been used as an example of how not to write a romance.

On a different note, I once wrote a mystery where the body appeared as demanded in the second or third paragraph, and that was a very hard book to write. Murder is by definition a violent crime, no matter how delicately it is committed, and one should feel outraged that someone – anyone – should have their life taken from them. However, there is almost a prerequisite that to feel sympathy for a character you have to know them, and that’s almost impossible when said character first appears as a lifeless lump on someone’s rug.

How do you create empathy for a character about whom no one knows anything and feels less? This victim, this human, this person, is perforce little more than a stage prop who elicits very little feeling or sympathy. I gave him a name, simply because it was more convenient than calling him ‘the body’ or ‘the decedent’ or ‘the dead guy,’ but although he had the requisite number of arms and legs he never really became a real person – merely a humanoid construct.

I have been dinged and called down because in my mysteries (save that one) the murder doesn’t happen until one-third or one-half through the book. I feel by giving the reader such a delay it creates two mysteries instead of one. The first is, who is going to be murdered? while the second is, who is going to be the murder?

When I write a murder I want the reader to be outraged at the deliberate taking of a human life, no matter how much that person deserved to be offed – and believe me, in my mysteries there are several characters who deserve it. Don’t know why bad people are so interesting, but they are, so I always have several of them… just like in real life.

A murder victim – whether in a book or in real life – deserves to be more than a stage prop.

What Makes A Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

We talk a lot about writing mysteries, reading mysteries, enjoying mysteries, but it’s seldom discussed what a mystery is. Leaving out the religious definitions, Dictionary.com says

  1. any affair, thing or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation
  2. a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end
  3. obscure, puzzling, or mysterious quality or character

So at heart a mystery seems to be an obfuscation, either deliberate or accidental. I can deal with that. It isn’t easy, but I can deal with it. It comes down to making the unknown known, and the writer has the unenviable task of revealing it piece (clue) by piece. That is after he created the story and then covered it up! It is a delicate balance.

Taking a ‘mystery’ and making it into an enjoyable and reasonably coherent novel is a daunting process, whether it’s the question of who took Aunt Ida’s coconut cake to finding a vicious and seemingly omnipotent serial killer. The process is – or should be – the same. Even if it isn’t the first scene in the book, when you’re plotting you need to start with an action by an unknown – i.e., the crime, be it coconut cake or murder. Then you must follow the carefully laid clues but seemingly random clues found by the sleuth, be he amateur or professional detective, and by examining these clues eventually uncover the truth. Don’t forget to complicate the process with a fair amount of believable red herrings and some conflicts/problems caused by the people involved.

The trick to doing this is not to be too obscure or too obvious. And I’m a firm believer that your sleuth has to work at finding these clues and therefore find the solution to the mystery in a logical and sort of organized form. You should also put in enough clues that the reader, if so inclined, has a decent chance of solving the mystery. Now I’m perfectly aware there are mysteries which are widely read and even some celebrated writers who break these rules. The most famous example is Raymond Chandler, who admitted that sometimes even he didn’t know how his sleuth solved the mystery – it just happened. Raymond Chandlers are few and far in between, though; the quality of his writing was so good that neither readers nor critics seem to care. Don’t try to duplicate this. Odds are you can’t.

Another rule-breaker is often the currently popular ‘fluffy’ cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually a woman and she usually has a ‘cute’ job – owning a bakery or specialty coffee cafe or floral shop or something similar. She has or wants a boyfriend, who often turns out to be a policeman of some sort, and a bunch of ‘zany’ or ‘quirky’ friends. All too often in this kind of story the mystery is of secondary importance to personal relationships and the personal life of the sleuth. It’s an overdone trope, but some sleuths still express a passion for shoes which takes up a lot of the story space. Which is fine, as long as that is the sort of story is what the reader wants.

What is not acceptable, however, is when in whatever kind of mystery the sleuth does little to no sleuthing. Clues seem to appear with no effort on the sleuth’s part. The solution is highly reminiscent of the deus ex machina so beloved of Greek and Roman playwrights. I call that a cheat. A mystery shouldn’t need a god to step down from Olympus to unravel a story so complex it is beyond the ken of mere humans.

It is good that there are so many variations of mysteries – puzzles, non-lethal crimes, capers, murders, serial killers, fluffy cozies, traditional cozies, hard-boileds… there is a style of mystery for every reader. I only hope they follow the rules that make a mystery a good story.

SUCCESSES AND PROBLEMS by Marilyn Meredith

Lately, that’s been my writing life, good stuff and not so good.

My long-time publisher for my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series has closed its doors. I asked for and received my rights back for the series and the covers. Because the cover had been designed for the latest book and new designs done for some of the older books, I was pleased.

So what to do next? I decided the best route to take with the series was self-publishing, though I didn’t really feel up to the task. One of my friends, an expert at self-publishing, is taking on this huge job. I say huge because there are 17 books in this series.

The latest book, Spirit Wind, is now published and available in print and on Kindle.

The first batch of the printed books didn’t have the appropriate headers—so I’ve used most of them as review copies—and sold some at a big discount.

A few of the other books in the series have been done, but the old publisher’s copies are still the ones upfront and available. So far, we’ve been unsuccessful at getting them taken down or at least the latest ones the first to show up.

I’d like to do a .99 cent deal for one of the series, but that will have to wait until some of the problems are fixed.

How am I feeling about all this? I’m happy the latest Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery is now available. Though a bit frustrated about some of the other problems, I’m not going to lose sleep over them. One thing I’ve learned over the years, the author’s path is never smooth. I’ve had crooked publishers, and publishers who were friends die. This happened with the first publisher of this series.

I’m going to book fairs (I have plenty of books to sell) and giving talks to writers groups and others. The promotion goes on. And I’m working on a book in my other series.

One thing I can assure you, I’m never bored. I can’t even imagine what that would be like.

The official blurb for Spirit Wind: A call from a ghost hunter changes Deputy Tempe Crabtree’s vacation plans. Instead of going to the coast, she and her husband are headed to Tehachapi to  investigate a haunted house and are confronted by voices on the wind, a murder, and someone out to get them.

Marilyn

Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.

Ooooh, Shiny!

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit it. I have a short attention span. I’m all too ready to be distracted by something new and different. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t particularly like series – either writing or reading. I want something new.

I never realized that this failing of mine extended to my own books. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to have two romantic/gothic/mysteries published by the incredible Vinspire Publishing. I was delighted to be with them, as both books are really rather special stories to me and Vinspire is indeed a gem among publishers. Although they are more than half mysteries, they were brought out under my Janis Susan May name instead of the Janis Patterson I now use for mysteries.

Both are set in the mid-to-late 1960s. DARK MUSIC is about a romance writers’ conference (yes, there were such things before RWA was begun in 1980) set in a Canadian resort hotel. Then there’s a freak blizzard trapping the conferees, including the heroine and her ex-husband; then someone starts to murder the romance writers one by one. It was a fun book.

The second book is ECHOES IN THE DARK, about a photographer with a broken leg who gets taken – reluctantly – by her ex-husband to an aged resort hotel in the Arkansas wilderness to join an archaeological dig he is spearheading. The heroine also has a head injury and is prone to hallucinations. When she sees a ghost that isn’t an hallucination, her troubles really start.

Before you ask, when I wrote these two books I was in the throes of a painful breakup of a long-time romance that had gone sour. Writing was cheaper than analysis, and sometimes killing people in pixels is excellent therapy!

These are both good books. I like them and enjoyed writing them. I didn’t realize how I had pretty much forgotten about them. Then Vinspire started bundling their books and asked what we were doing to PR them. I was ashamed to admit even to myself that I had done nothing in the longest time. I had put so much time and energy on writing new books (isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) that these two little gems had simply faded into the background, a spot they really didn’t deserve.

So now I’m really doing a lot of publicity for them, but it’s making me think about how my – or anyone’s – career should be prioritized. I only have so much time. I have to write. I have to publish. I have a family and a life and other obligations.

What has to give?

What indeed.