A Bee in my Bonnet by Paty Jager

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While figuring out the means of death in my latest Shandra Higheagle mystery, Toxic Trigger-point, I had to come up with something quiet, easy, and could be done while a woman was face down on a massage table.

I wanted the scene when the body is found to look as if the woman is on the table waiting for a massage, but then they realize she is dead.

The scene had to look serene-normal.

I came up with an allergy to bees. After reading up on it, I discovered people who are deathly allergic to bees can die within minutes of contact with bee venom. Further research, I discovered there are some facial creams that have bee venom in them. Enough to cause anaphylaxis shock and death.

To tell you any more about how it all happened would give the story away. ;)_

However, each time I tried to come up with a way for Shandra and Ryan to get a confirmation it was from a bee sting or venom from forensics, I was shot down by Judy Melinek, MD and forensic pathologist.

Each time I’d come up with something, like, how about finding the enzymes for bee venom in stomach contents, she’d shut me down. Bee venom can not be tested for because of it’s chemical break down. Hmmm….

She told me the discovery would have to come from the investigation. Discovering the woman’s allergy and working from there. So that’s what I did. With the help of information from the victim’s family and, of course, Shandra’s dreams, she and Ryan solve the murder.

This is what I enjoy about writing mysteries. While I might have a great idea in mind for a murder, I have to dig and research to discover the best, and sometimes the only way, to disclose or discover how the victim was killed.

Have you read any mystery books with an unusual way the victim was killed?

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Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.

Asking an Expert

I wish the author had asked me some questions. Asked someone with expertise in exercise science. The plot of a book that shall remain nameless depended on a near-impossible event having to do with exercise physiology. While this diminished my enjoyment of the book, it did remind me to do my own research diligently. A minor factual error doesn’t bother me much, one that slides by and doesn’t change the story. In another book, I noted a character saying that spring is nice in New Mexico, and I thought: Have you been here in April? Do you like high winds blowing grit in your eyes? But the plot didn’t revolve around the weather. And, well, the  spring temperatures are nice.

I’m partially confessing to an error that plagues me in one of my books. It wouldn’t change the plot, just some descriptive details, so I’m not going to tell you what it is, but if I’d asked an expert in person rather than looking things up, I wouldn’t have made it. Readers who catch the error may be a bit annoyed, though none have contacted me. Yet.

One of my beta readers does a lot of camping, something I’ve done in the past, but not for a long time. Ghost Sickness includes a camping scene, and she caught all the places where my memory hadn’t served me well. Sometimes we think we know, and we don’t. Or we used to know, and we forgot more than we realized.

I’m working on a book in which two characters are trivia buffs and play pub trivia. There aren’t any trivia game scenes, but I decided to go the Truth or Consequences Brewing Co. on trivia night anyway, just get a feel for their experience. I’m now hooked on the monthly trivia night. One time, I teamed up with two tourists from Chicago who were hiking in the area, and I found out that the world’s longest trivia tournament takes place in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I can picture one of my trivia buff characters attending that event in a future book, or I could invent such a tournament in in T or C, and have fun with the portion where competitors have to explore the town to get answers. Another night, I teamed up with a friend’s daughter who is a wild land firefighter. I have a character who’s in that line of work, and have only featured him in one book so far, while he’s home between fires. I’d wanted to ask her questions for future books, in case I gave him a larger role in the future, and she was eager to share. The great thing about talking to the expert, not simply looking things up, was that she could tell me things I didn’t think to ask. We stayed after trivia and I took lots of notes and got her contact information. I can’t wait to bring back the firefighter character, though it may have to be three books in the future.

My research contact list is growing.  I’ve talked to my neighbor who is the county medical investigator. She loves talking about her work, dead bodies and all. (There’s still no murder in my future books, but there may be a death under extremely awkward circumstances.) My meeting with an antiques dealer radically changed my plans for a crime in my work in progress. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but I’ll have to discard it and plan anew. It’s okay.  I don’t want anyone reading my book and thinking : The whole plot turned on that one thing, and she didn’t get it right. Why didn’t she just ask someone?

*****

Curious about mysteries without murder? The boxed set of the first three Mae Martin Mysteries is on sale for $2.99 for the next two weeks.

The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Hello, my name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.

I have always believed that historical accuracy in our fiction is of paramount importance – equal to that of a good story, in fact, and the further back in time we go the more important it becomes. Why? Because it is sad but true that a lot of readers get most of their knowledge of history through fiction and as writers we have the responsibility to make sure that the history in our books is as correct as we can make it. And by correct, I mean as it really was, warts, unpopular language and beliefs, politically incorrect (according to current standards) behavior and all. A lot of what happened in the past is unacceptable in today’s climate, but that doesn’t matter… it’s the past! As someone said, they do things differently there.

There are those who say that close adherence to history doesn’t matter, that only the story is important. I say that’s dishonest and lazy. It’s just as easy – as if writing anything were easy – to make a story historically accurate as it is to slap something together and call it historical. If an author is going to disregard history then he/she should at least be honest and call it alternative fiction.

I remember a mystery I read a couple of years ago that sent my blood pressure soaring. It wasn’t a bad story – the characters were fleshed out, the clues were there, the descriptions of physical objects and places were fairly good (if a little on the loose side, but hey – if they weren’t enough to set a history geek like me screaming, they were pretty much okay) and the mystery itself was involving and well-resolved. What sent me over the edge was that while the storyline was acceptable, the main characters dashed impossibly quickly back and forth over the Atlantic to Europe chasing clues. You see, the story was set in the mid-1920s, and transatlantic air passenger flights didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have zipped back and forth across the Atlantic – after all, Lindbergh didn’t make his history-making solo transatlantic flight until 1927.

The first sort-of-real transatlantic flight was indeed made in May, 1919, in a seaplane called the NC4. However, because it had no reliable navigation equipment, the plane would fly at night shooting their position from the stars. Then in the day, they would land on the water and sleep, and take off again when the stars came out. They were also followed by a Navy warship of some kind in case they crashed. As a side note, I have seen this plane in the Naval Aviation Museum (fascinating – do go if you can!) in Pensacola. It is huge! I mean, really really huge, so big you can’t get a picture of the entire thing in one shot. It is also so incredibly flimsy that I marvel any man would risk his life by flying in it.

Back to the discrepancies in this book – the first passenger transatlantic flights were Zeppelins, flying from Germany to New York, and they took four days. Commercial heavier-than-air transatlantic flight didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (again depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have gone back and forth across the Atlantic in mere hours like they were on some modern jet.

See what I mean? Looking up one little fact like the date commercial transatlantic flights began and off I go down the rabbit hole of research.

Another example – some time ago I was judging a Regency romance contest. One of the entries was okay – fairly decent writing, good-ish story… nothing to rave about, but okay. Until the hero reached into the pocket of his Bath-cloth coat and pulled out a fountain pen to sign something. Wow! Talk about hitting a wall! FYI – fountain pens were not invented until 1827, when a very primitive one using a goose-quill nib was patented in France, or if you prefer, the modern steel-nibbed version which was patented in 1884. (See – I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so reading about the history of fountain pens – never knew they could be so fascinating!) In either case, though, there is no way our Regency hero could have used one!

I gave the book the average scores it deserved on plot, writing, etc., but in the ‘anything else’ category I gave her a zero on period accuracy (I would have given her a minus score, but there was no way to do it) and explained why in a kindly tone. Wow! I got a letter back from her so hot that the flaming pixels almost burned through the screen, demanding to know why I had marked her down for ‘such a little thing.’ “After all,” she screeched, “it’s an old-fashioned pen – who will know the difference?” Ticked, I replied back “Anyone with a brain and the slightest knowledge of history.”

It is unfortunate that far too many readers learn about history from our books instead of academic sources and for that reason alone we need to be as accurate as possible. There are eras about which we have to extrapolate from scant knowledge – the Ice Age, for example, or third century sub-Saharan Africa – but in most historical ages (especially the popular ones like Ancient Egypt or Regency England or medieval Europe) there are lots of research materials to choose from and explore. It is part of our responsibility as writers to do so. Again, far too many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction, and we can and should never forget that those who do not remember history – good, bad and indifferent – are condemned to repeat it.

Digging into a Character by Paty Jager

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View from my ride-along

I’m currently working on a the first book of a new mystery series. This new series is making me grow as a writer which is what I hope each book does, but this series and character in particular is really making me stretch my brain which isn’t getting any younger.

I picked not only a male protagonist but I made him Native American ( one of my signatures of what I write) and I put him in a profession I know nothing about. Whew! Talk about working in a totally new environment!

Through the years writing romance before I got the nerve to try my hand at mystery, I wrote from both the male an female points of view and in my Shandra Higheagle series I write from a male point of view with Detective Ryan Greer. But this book is told completely from the male point of view- from Fish and Wildlife State Trooper Gabriel Hawke’s point of view.

Not only do I have to think like a male, I have to think a bit Native American and as a lawman would. Having been around my son-in-law who is a detective with the State Police, I’ve learned that even when they appear to be off duty and hanging around, they are still seeing things and picking up on things that the rest of us shrug off.

Trying to keep my character “on the alert” yet laid back and letting things happen as they should has been a tricky balance. Using his upbringing and his drive as counterpoints has also been tricky.  He has worked hard to get out of the reservation and to have the job he does-protecting his ancestors land. But at the same time because he is protecting his ancestors land he has a deep connection to his Native American roots. While he is full blood Native American he still feels as if his feet are in two worlds. He is upholding the Whiteman’s law as a lawman, but at the same time keeping vigilance over his Native roots.

This first book is taking me longer to write than I thought it would but I had to put it on hold while I did a ride-along with a Fish and Wildlife State Trooper in the Eagle Cap Wilderness where my character works.  The day I spent with the game warden was eye opening in the scope of duties they must preform. Because it is a large remote area, not only do they have to do their game duties but they also serve as a state trooper and while they are on the trail of a poacher or trespasser and there is a call that comes in about a shooting or domestic dispute they have to respond even if it is across the county from where they are at the moment.

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Elk refuge where we were looking for trespassers

The best part about the ride-along was getting the troopers perspective on his job and learning some of the little nuances that I can add to books to give the character the flavor of a real life person.

When the first Gabriel Hawke book is ready to go to my critique partners and beta readers it will be interesting to see if I managed to get the male character correct.

The first thing that pulls me into a book is the characters. What about you?

SH Mug Art

The Devil in the Details

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What are the differences in symptoms between cyanide poisoning by inhalation or by ingestion? What is the best way to store evidence? What work happens on a lavender farm in early October? How are French wine labels governed by the state?

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I like research that requires learning about wine and visiting lavender farms

The topics a mystery writer may find herself researching are never boring! We rely on resources including — but by no means limited to—manuals, interviews with experts, visits to unusual places, even Google searches. 

When a murder is committed in our books, even if it takes place off the page, we need to know exactly how it was done and what clues might be left behind. When a victim is found in a particular location, we need to know why he or she was there to begin with. When a suspect produces an alibi that doesn’t hold water, we need to know the detailed explanation of why not — even when we don’t share all those details with the reader.

The question of how many details to share is a big one. For a book to pass muster as a realistic story, a certain level of explanation and accuracy is necessary. But include too many details, and suddenly your reader finds herself reading a how-to manual instead of an engrossing story. 

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My kind of how-to manual!

Of course, different readers look for different types of details. How we as writers present our stories is a big part of what makes up a writer’s “voice.” Some writers are known for their intricate explanations, whether of crimes or locations or corpses. Readers who loves those writers thrive on those details — to them, it brings the story to life. Other readers look for a book that skims over the detail. They’re less worried about how accurate the description of police activity is and more interested in the emotional arc of the characters involved. And some readers want it all!

Some of these differences are determined by the subgenres within the mystery genre — some books are thrillers, others suspense or cozies. Each type has its own expectations. No one who picks up a cozy is looking for a graphic description of the corpse, but leave out the details of the chocolate cake recipe and you’re asking for trouble!

The writer must know her readers’ expectations and not disappoint. My books are traditional mysteries, which means they follow the line of providing succinct and accurate descriptions of crimes and how they are committed, but keep the focus on the plot and characters. When I’m looking for a fun read at bedtime, however, I usually grab a cozy mystery, something I can cuddle up with along with a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy. Hey, who said we could only read one subgenre?

So how much detail should a writer include? Not too much, but just enough. 

How much detail do you look for in the books you read?

And if you’re wondering, the first two questions above I had to answer for my book A Pale Reflection, coming out later this year. The second two are for the book in the series after that (yes, while one book is with the editor, I get to work on the next one).

Learn more about Jane Gorman and the Adam Kaminski Mystery Series at janegorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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Fictional Crime

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The Adam Kaminski Mystery Series are fiction. I base the stories on some true events — historical events, for example, or crimes I read about in the newspapers, or interactions I’ve had in the past with diplomats and law enforcement officers. But in the main, the stories originate in my head. No one was hurt in the making of these books.

No Animals Harmed

This past weekend, I was thrilled to once again join the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Sisters in Crime for a lecture by a local expert in crime and murder. Of the true variety.

I’m not usually a fan of true crime stories. I love reading about fictional murders, with fictional victims and fictional sleuths. Hearing about grisly murders that really took place, about a sick, twisted individual who really did kill innocents, is disturbing. Fascinating, yes, but disturbing.

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Our speaker this month was Sam Cox, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Sam spoke to us about her involvement in the exhumation and identification of the remains of H. H. Holmes, commonly known as America’s first (known) serial killer.

Holmes is suspected of killing as many as 200 people. During the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, he ran a hotel just off-site that was later determined to have a lime pit and large incinerator in the basement — handy for getting rid of unwanted bodies.

Hearing Sam tell this story, I was hooked. Sam’s work was included in a recent series by the History Channel, American Ripper. Her team is featured in the final episode. I recommend it!

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I loved hearing her talk about the techniques they used to dig up his grave then identify the bones they found. She told us about what was actually proven in the case and what was still conjecture. She explained how the detectives at the time tracked him and the bodies he left in his wake as he ran.

As a writer, this lecture was invaluable as a source of ideas and information. We learned about investigative and exploratory techniques that law enforcement can use in identifying victims and killers. We got a glimpse behind the scenes.

As a reader, I’m intrigued by the personalities involved. The nonchalance of the serial killer, the determination of the detective who finally tracked him down.

That said, I don’t think I’ll become an avid reader of true crime stories. There’s something comforting about murder mysteries: the killer always gets caught, the hero always saves the day (well, not for the victims, but for those who survive).

I like the feeling that once you’re done, all is right with the world. And I try not to think too much about the true killers still lurking, out there, in the real world…

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Learn more about Jane Gorman at JaneGorman.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.