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.

 

Encore Performance by Sally Carpenter

Carpenter photo_WEB gifOne of the nice things about publishing is the chance to do it all over again and better.

Five years ago my first book, The Baffled Beatlemanic Caper, went out of print. That publisher has since closed its doors, so the book was destined to go OOP eventually. At the time the second book in the series was finished. I was fortunately to find my current publisher, Cozy Cat Press, who was willing to pick up book two.

I had a new front cover made and self-pubbed Beatlemaniac as an ebook. Various NEW Beatlemaniac_final_webonline bookstores continued to sell used print copies, although I received no royalties on them. I was disappointed at having a book go OOP so quickly, but I moved ahead with other writing projects.

Since then, authors I knew, some who had been with large publishers, began reissuing their backlists with small presses. With new covers, their books were back on the shelves.

Earlier this year a reader said some of her friends were looking for print versions of Beatlemaniac. I had just about run out of print copies to hand sell. I was also getting tired of getting no payment for the used copies changing hands.

And I was not happy with the book. As a neophyte writer, I was in a rush to get published and the text had a number of errors. I hated the cover. The back cover was a dog’s breakfast of too many elements, and the front cover was printed so dark that the great artwork was obscured.

Encouraged by the backlist successes of others, I approached my publisher, Patricia Rockwell, about reissuing the book. Since 2013, I’d written four other books, a short story and a chapter for a group mystery novel for CCP—so I had a good track record.

I’m calling this reissue the “revised second edition.” We’re using cover my designer had made for the Beatlemaniac ebook, so we didn’t need new artwork. I like the “new” cover as it’s colorful—more suitable for a cozy, and it “pops” more on the screen/shelf.

I updated my author bio and revised the introduction and acknowledgements. I wanted to include more about how the book came about, but the book was already longer than most CCP books and I had to save space.

The Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books have been extensively rewritten over the years for new generations. So why not take the opportunity to improve my book?

I carefully read it again. I corrected the misspellings and grammatical errors. I replaced “ands” with periods to alleviate run-on sentences. I toned down the strong language (when I wrote the book, I didn’t even know what a cozy was, let alone the “rules”) and cut a few words from the flashback seduction scene.

I had used the word “towards” a million times. I realized I had overused the phrase “I realized.” The characters also “gestured” frequently. Some gestures I left in, others I changed. After all, real people do “gesture”!

Some of the chapters run long, but making more sections would mean renumbering all the chapters and that can get dicey.

But I didn’t alter the story or the characters. I was surprised that the plot and red herrings worked so well. I have what some editors might consider “info dumps,” but they are interesting details about my character’s life in show biz that most people wouldn’t know and I left them in. It’s also good background on my protagonist that doesn’t show up in the other books.

After writing three other books with my protagonist, it was fun to go back and see where it all started. When book one begins, he isn’t terribly likeable. He’s just hopped on the wagon and is out of sorts. Sandy hates the character he played on his TV show. But by book four he’s comfortable with his sobriety and his alter ego.

BTW, in my book the correct spelling of the East Indian goddess in the Beatles movie Help! is Kaili, not Kali, the real Hindu goddess. Beatles fans would never forgive me if I got that wrong.

A nice offshoot is that I had planned to include a new Sandy Fairfax short story with the second edition, but my publisher said that would make the print book far too long. I have a good finished novelette on hand, so my next project is to write more stories to make a Sandy anthology. Stay tuned . . .

 

Hiding the killer in my subconscious by Paty Jager

2017 headshot newEvery mystery book I’ve written, I start out with the firm belief I know who the killer is.

I start preparing for the book by deciding where the main character, Shandra Higheagle is, what she is doing, and how she will come to either discover a body, be in the vicinity of who does find the body, or know the accused murderer.

The next step is making up my suspect chart and writing down what I know and want others to know about each suspect.

With the suspect chart comes red herrings and other characters- friends, family of the suspects and the victim.

Once the chart is done, I evaluate and decide which one would be the least likely to have killed, yet have the best motive. And that’s the character who I start out hiding the information( red herrings and quick mentions of clues that are glossed over) and plan to have be the one who dunit in the end.

Cars on winding road trough the forest aerial viewEvery book so far, the killer has ended up being someone other than I started out to write about.  I’m not sure if its because I do so many twists and turns in who it could be that I confuse myself or that I realize the person I started out as the murderer is too logical, so I do yet another twist and there is my killer! When I go back through the book to put in clues, I always see that I’d added the necessary clues without thinking about it.

All along my subconscious knew who did it while my working brain was busy workingConcept of the human brain on my initial scenario. I love that this happens because it surprises not only me but the reader.  And it means that writing mystery is what I should be doing since my subconscious seems to know my murderous mind better than I do!

Do you like stories with lots of twists and turns or do you like to know who did it and work with the sleuths to prove it?

SH Mug Art

Guest Blogger- Christoph Burmeister

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The Poetic Murderer, and me — How the Book Came to Be

Fear will learn to fear you.

Last winter I got the news: Lionel Ross wanted to publish my first novel. I was overjoyed and humbled beyond my ability to express myself. Then gradually I gained an understanding of what was happening. Engaging style. Humorous. Smiles. An unreliable narrator reveals himself as a lyrical mastermind known as … Of course! The book was scheduled to appear in January 2018. January came like a dream, and marvellous as it may seem, soon I held a copy of The Poetic Murderer in my hands.

I was a shy child with a “vivid imagination,” as my grandmother Liesel used to say. Then I was an anxious teenager who didn’t write at all because of a lack of confidence. In my late twenties, I moved to Copenhagen, where I was awarded a master’s degree in Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management (A title that is killer like a whale to the attention.) Unsatisfied with the job prospects I attended the Creative Writing School at Cambridge University, where my passion for drawing stories from my imagination re-emerged. I was hooked. I decided that I wanted to write a book. Back then, my professor complimented the energy in my writing, but also suggested that I should write in my mother tongue German as it would be too far a stretch for me to write a novel in English. Challenge accepted!

I started with an image — a young, enigmatic, and successful detective, having to solve a mystical murder case on a quest of a dream and fulfilment of his own destiny, and that idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote the first manuscript in a flash. After six weeks I was ready, and contacted my friend from Cambridge, who wanted to become an editor. I was very positive and awaited her response. Everything changed when she replied. The manuscript was full of inconsistencies, mistakes, and bizarre phrases. But nothing that couldn’t be fixed. I’m human. Humans make mistakes.

I worked on the story obsessively. I’d been a person who enjoyed to achieve his goals with ease, offhandedly. When the novel took over for the first time in my life I had the feeling that I was properly challenged really. I purchased a small notebook and scribbled notes like a maniac, no matter where I was. If I thought of something while cycling, I’d jump off as soon as the traffic permitted it, and put it to paper. It became second nature to me. It felt so real.

From the crazy rush at the beginning, soon my literary journey turned into a devoted drafting of each chapter, and then I’d send each revised version of the manuscript to my friend in England, whose opinion I feared and wait for her response. While all this editing was going on, I continued filling notebooks and drawing the story before the inner eye. I wrote far more than I ever did before. I also discovered that style is a continuous distillation. How can I be me? Honestly expressing myself. No lies. That became the bottom line of all my endeavours. The book slowly took shape, however, due to my inexperience, a fear of failure attended me and intensified.

The detective character was what kept me hooked. He’s my hero, mysterious, funny, impulsive, vulnerable, dreamy, and in love with his laissez-faire lifestyle. When Detective 00 Hansen has to deal with his disturbingly poetic case, much hate from the police force, and that his wife left him, he questions everything. A period of doubt studied me too, especially when friends and family had hard times understanding my yet fictitious ambitions. But I wouldn’t give up.

I worked on the novel through the year, and when I was sure I’d gotten the manuscript into shape, I contacted agents and publishers, and eventually was chosen as one among many talented writers. High times!

Well, that is what I would call a miracle, one that a shy child with a “vivid imagination,” wouldn’t have dreamt of or an honoured professor at Cambridge University wouldn’t have predicted.

Now will anyone buy the book, unravel the deeper meaning of it, smile when I’m acquainting them with a funny line, and feel inspired to follow their own dreams?

That remains to be seen. At least The Poetic Murderer made my own dream become true.

And as you shall see, fear will learn to fear you too.

FINAL COVER (1)The Poetic Murderer

“Fear will learn to fear you.”

If you liked Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, you will love The Poetic Murderer.

Detective 00 Hansen is an enigmatic dreamer in the streets of Copenhagen, riding a fast antelope, and living a slow life (not always to the delight of his wife)…

In The Poetic Murderer, Hansen and Don Cindy’s first mystery, the duo are informed by Denmark’s Queen Marmalade II and Prince Sandwich about an unimaginable murder at the supermarket. The body is marked by violence and the murder weapon an unhygienic rainbow trout.

The police are baffled by the mysterious poem at the crime scene. But when Detective 00 Hansen applies his vivid imagination to the problem he uncovers a tragic tale of unrequited love and ruthless ambition… Will he stop the poetic murderer on the quest of a dream and fulfilment of his own destiny?

An unaesthetic fear of the unknown haunts us, namely the unforeseen. A fear that shapes our lives. No human can unlearn to fear; we all have to learn how to deal with it. By picking up this novel, the reader travels a new route and learns to lead a fearless life by trusting in the own reality.

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Christoph colChristoph Burmeister was born on the 16 April 1987 in Bad Oldesloe on the river Trave. That’s why he originally wanted to become a clown.
On school days he dreamed wholeheartedly. University was no hindrance to him; it was his hobby. He would carefully fashion his appearance as an eager student.
After graduation, the money bell rang, and he started working for a shipping company as a treasury manager. One day he took a glimpse into the mirror and did not recognise himself, so he left home and moved to Copenhagen.
All of a sudden: Hygge!
2015—Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, then Improv theatre. Now his first novel: The Poetic Murderer.
Christoph likes Jazz and his simplistic life-style resonates with mystery and beauty. His right hand is the instrument of his daily writing practise.

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