What’s Old Is New Again

by Janis Patterson

I don’t have much time to read, but for various reasons not long ago I agreed to review a few books. Two were okay – nothing to write home about, but at least grammatical and spelt correctly, with not-totally-stupid plots. The third… well, to call it puerile and sophomoric would be flattering it. If I hadn’t promised a review on it I wouldn’t have gotten beyond the third page. How can anyone think such a train wreck of a book is ready to be released is beyond me. Either they are supremely ignorant or totally ignorant.

Once my duty was done, though, I needed to clear my mental palate, and thought that something classic might soothe my outraged sensibilities. So I picked up a Mary Roberts Rinehart (one of my all-time favorites) mystery.

I really only intended to read one, but found out that’s sort of like eating a single peanut or potato chip. I happened across an omnibus of all of her long fiction on Amazon – and free, yet! It was a mixed blessing, though. It did contain books I had never heard of, but as I steadily munched through them I noticed a wildly varied level of editing quality. Some were wonderful; some were obviously edited by a set of drunks to whom English was not a first nor even a second language!

That’s neither here nor there, though; in the face of Rinehart’s genius even the editing errors were nothing more than a mild annoyance – and those of you who know how completely inflexible I am about proper spelling and editing will doubtless find that statement amazing if not downright incredible. But in the case of Rinehart’s genius it really doesn’t matter. No matter how badly they are misspelt they are some of the most fascinating books in the language.

Rinehart wrote in a number of fields, including short pulp fiction (by which she supported her husband and family during a time of need) as well as novel-length romance and mystery. I write romance and mystery myself and know how difficult that can be; she made it seem easy.

Her books will not, however, appeal to everyone. Contemporary to the time they were written – just before and just after World War One – they reflect both the style and the ethos of the era. No conscious, mad scientist style murders, no lascivious young lovers experimenting in athletic sex. Most characters are repressed, if anything, obsessively proper and yearning for respectability. A kiss on the hand becomes as emotionally satisfying as a two-chapter roll in the hay out of a modern romance novel. Solving a murder becomes not only a legal imperative, but a moral one as well. What’s worse is her writing style is equally dated, reflecting the usage of the times, and done – most of the times – in a measured and omniscient voice, now sadly unpopular, but one which I have always liked. She wrote from 1908 to the mid-1950’s (she died in 1958) – at least, those are the most accepted dates.

With all these drawbacks, why is Rinehart so prized and such a delicious read?

Two reasons – characterization and plot. Her plots are convoluted and impeccable and delicious. During her career she was called ‘the American Agatha Christie.’ I personally think in many cases she is the superior. Her characters are spot on. There is no endless repetition of hair or eye color, descriptions of physical flaws or rippling whatevers; to be sure there are descriptions, but minor ones, and usually at the beginning of a book. Her characters are not just compilations of attributes, but living, breathing people. I would know them if I met them on the street. Two of the ones I remember the most are a Belgian spy during the trench warfare of World War One, suave, outrageous and highly courage, and the other a teenaged girl of the pre-war period, who can and does cause chaos without ever trying.

Not only was Rinehart a gifted writer, she was an amazing woman. Married to a doctor, mother of three sons in an era when women were not supposed to be much else, she paid her own way (with a car, no less) to the Front in France during the War, where she not only acted as a war correspondent but drove food and supplies for the soldiers to obscure and remote outposts. She also became a well-known New York literary hostess.

It isn’t often I have such public fangurl moments, but it’s better than when I cry with regret or shake with anger that such a consummate craftsman is lost in the dust of history. Now, if you will excuse me, I am only half-way through THE AFTER HOUSE, and just have to find out how she’s going to work her way out of this tangle!

Clues, Magic and Little Cat Feet

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit I get a little put out when people (including some writers) say “Oh, I could never write a mystery – how do you think of all those clues and where to put them?” Usually, when I’m wearing my romance-writer hat (yes, I write both, along with several other genres), these are the same people who say “Oh, I could churn out one of those stories if I ever had the time.”

Grrrr.

To me that is as stupid as someone saying they can cook a roast but could never cook hamburgers. Or vice-versa. Writing is a learned craft, and the basic tools are the same whether you write confession stories or blockbuster action-adventures or small town cozy mysteries with a bakery shop (sometimes a needlework store) and a romance.

Yes, I am the first to admit that there is an element of magic in writing, of taking twenty-six simple symbols and turning them into a story that will touch and enthrall the reader, but magic – like luck – really does seem to prefer the prepared who have worked like the devil to learn their skills.

But magic aside, writing is a craft. Sometimes when I start a mystery I have a hazy idea of who and why, and that often changes, sometimes several times, but as I write along I leave a strong story behind me. If I may steal Deborah (Debra?) Dixon’s mantra of ‘goal, motivation and conflict’ I’ve found that following that guideline for almost every scene (excluding a very few, very short ones used mainly for transition from one arena of action to another) as well as for the entire book makes it much easier. In real life we sit around, we dawdle, we have purposeless (though sometimes pleasant) conversations, we sit in traffic, we… whatever, but in a book we don’t have that luxury. Every word, every action has to count and either explain why our characters/events are the way they are and/or bring us closer to the climax/resolution.

I’ve told this story before, but in my mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE for the first two thirds of the book I was absolutely positive I knew who the killer was. Then – boom! All of a sudden I realized that wouldn’t work. Well, it would have worked because I’m the author and what I say goes – sort-of, but dramatically it was a bust. Rather than start over again or back up and throw out great chunks of wonderful, deathless prose <grin> I kept on writing and within a few pages I knew who the murderer really was. Except – another chapter, and the whole thing started over again. He couldn’t be the murderer. Gritting my teeth I forged on.

To make a long story short, if it’s not too late, this process repeated itself five times during the last third of the book. I was getting alarmed, as I was running out of potential villains, and will never subscribe to the ancient trope of a convenient homicidal maniac wandering around who just happened by and had never been mentioned before. Grimly I went on, and in the next to the last chapter suddenly all was revealed to me. I will admit that by this time I had ceased to feel like a writer and more like a scribe, just taking down what I couldn’t control.

But the final solution was perfect. Things could not have worked out better. The only thing that made me sigh with apprehension was that now I would have to go back through the entire manuscript and put in clues. I was as astonished as anyone could be when on rereading I found that they were already there. Who knew? Magic? Anyway, I think I put in two or three more, just so I would have the illusion of being in charge…

So perhaps I should restate my premise – writing is work, writing is a skill is available to just about anybody who will study and practice. And the magic? I think it comes creeping in on little cat feet (sorry, Mr. Sandburg) under the cover of study and practice just waiting to jump out when you expect it the least. And it doesn’t make any difference whether you write mystery or romance or horror or action-adventure or any of millions of other kinds of stories – the building blocks are the same. But you do have to learn how to use them.

Writing Would Be Perfect If…

by Janis Patterson

I mean it. Writing would be so perfect if it weren’t for the readers.

I know, that is a very incendiary statement, but it’s true. We’re asked to live up to readers’ expectations without being given much of a hint as to what those expectations are. Or what they’re going to be in six months or a year, after some big unexpected blockbuster shows up and turns everything we thought we knew into a fruit salad.

Have you ever noticed how so many of those big unexpected blockbusters are usually done by people who have never published a book before? Without the need to cater to a pre-conceived notion of what readers (and publishers!) want, they write what they want. But I’ll bet there are many many more who write what they want and never get by the second reader at an agent’s or publisher’s office. It’s the one that gets through that messes everything up for us working professional mid-list writers. We’ve finally (we think!) worked out the reading habits of our demographic and adjusted our plotting/writing accordingly and some of us make a fairly decent living doing that.

Then – boom! Some off the wall writer hands in a new style of book and suddenly that’s what everyone is wanting. I’ll bet all those writers who hit the jackpot aren’t trying to make a living off their writing, that they have jobs to pay their rent and bills, but they don’t mind messing things up for the rest of us. Humph!

It has become a bad joke in the writing industry that publishers are eagerly seeking something like [insert name of current bestseller here] – something just the same, but different. I have known writers who start to growl menacingly when told this and publishers don’t seem to understand that such a statement is not really good corporate communication.

Sadly, though, it isn’t just publishers and agents. I have talked to readers about this phenomenon and am astonished at how easily the little darlings are led – of course, they are the same people who rush to buy a detergent that screams “NEW” and “DIFFERENT” when the only things new and different about the product are that the boxes are smaller and the price higher.

I have talked to readers (in both romance and mystery, as I write both) who are upset with the new fashion of genre bending. I recall one most decisive woman who hated the idea, saying “When I read a story I want this to happen, and then this, and then this.” She was not happy when I asked if she were so rigid in her reading desires why didn’t she just read the same book over and over again and save herself some money.

Her reply was fit for neither print nor pixels.

I guess you really can’t please everyone. Sigh.

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.

The Mystery of Romance – or is it the Romance of Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be included on the panel at the public library sponsored Romance in Bonham, a nice county seat town a little over an hour away. The ladies of the library hold this event every other February, and it’s great fun. After the panel discussion and the book signing and everything is all over they provide the panelists and the family members they bring along a down-home potluck lunch. Always some of the best ‘lady food’ I’ve ever had! (Wish they’d do a cookbook…)

Although this is a romance-centric event, I brought several of my mysteries and was slightly astonished at the interest they generated. Apparently there is a growing interest for more mystery in romances – or more romance in mysteries. Both of which, I think, are a very good thing. For far too long readers and writers both have been pigeonholed into fairly rigid and unforgiving categories. Mystery was mystery. Romance was romance. Romantic suspense was a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it was soon codified into so much a percentage romance, so much a percentage mystery/adventure by most traditional publishers.

Now, almost in the manner of a superhero, self-publishing has started to break down the artificial barriers between genres, allowing them to become just stories with all kinds of elements. Want a mystery with lots of blood and danger and nary a kiss between characters? It’s out there. Want an exciting mystery where a couple falls in love while evading the bad guys/saving the world/whatever? It’s out there. Want a tender romance where a couple falls in love happily ever after while solving a usually gentle mystery? It’s out there. Want any combination of the above? Or just about anything else, including vampires, shapeshifters talking cats or kung-fu knitters? Even all at once? It’s out there.

I don’t know if the traditional publishers – the kind one finds on the shelves of your local bookstore, if there are many of those left – have twigged to how complete this revolution of thought is, but the virtual aisles of electronic/print on demand publishing are full of proof. You can find almost any permutation of any storyline now. Self and small publishing have opened up the world of stories, and readers/writers are no longer bound to restrict their desires to the small and rigid genres the trad publishers have decreed will make them the most money. True, in the days when traditional publishing reigned supreme and controlled not only content but distribution, print runs were enormous and had to be done ahead of release, then stored in gigantic warehouses. The publishers had to look to what would give the best return on their not-inconsiderable investment. Now, though, in the burgeoning world of electronic and print on demand self-publishing, such considerations are no longer the end-all and be-all of what’s available. Niche markets that were too small to interest the trad publishers are now flourishing and expanding.

And that’s all to the good. Choice is a good thing, and genre-blending is a good way to expand reader interest. If there is a downside, it’s that the freedom of self-publishing has opened the floodgates to an unbelievable amount of pure dreck. There are people who believe that not only putting down X number of words is writing a book, but that doing so will guarantee them fame and fortune. We can only hope that their number dies off quickly, because this wave of badly written, badly conceived and badly formatted messes is reflecting badly on self-published books as a whole. There are self-pubbed books (usually written by veterans – or perhaps we should say survivors – of the trad publishing industry) whose quality is unquestionably equal to or better than anything from the Big 5, but they are shadowed with the prevailing belief that all self-published books are rubbish. That’s a misconception that only time and persistence can alter. But it will, it surely will, and writers and readers the world over will benefit from it.