Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Writing Life


by Carolyn Hart

When I was eleven, I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. I had no idea I would end up devoting my life to murder.

I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, back in the days of hot type, pica poles, and Speed Graphics. In j-school, I wore a trench coat, smoked Chesterfields (successfully discarded many years ago) and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins. But, as the adage informs, Man proposes, God disposes.

I met a young law student, we married, and I worked on a local newspaper, then for public information at the university. After we started our family, I quit work and stayed home. This was before the days when young women were expected to work full-time, have a family, and bake cookies for the school sale and climb the Matterhorn in their leisure moments.

I missed writing. I didn’t want to go back to reporting because of the long hours. That’s when I first thought about writing fiction. In The Writer magazine, I saw an announcement of a contest for a mystery for girls aged 8 to 12. I adored Nancy Drew and I decided to give it a try. THE SECRET OF THE CELLARS won the contest and was published in 1964. I’ve written children’s mysteries, young adult suspense novels, and dozens adult mystery or suspense novels. I also write the GHOST AT WORK series. The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous redheaded ghost returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who knows too much. I have never had more fun writing a book.

So many books. All of them mysteries.

"Why mysteries?"

"When will you write a real book?"

"Why do you want to write about murder?"

When asked these questions at a book talk, I know immediately that the questioners don’t read mysteries. Murder is never the point of the mystery. Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.

Mysteries captured my heart when I read my first Nancy Drew. I was thrilled by the challenges posed for Nancy Drew and for Frank and Joe Hardy, absorbed by the puzzles, and inspired by their courage and devotion to justice. Nancy’s snazzy roadster, amazing independence, and handsome Ned were also a plus. As for serious Frank and fun-loving Joe, who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? I always think of Max Darling, Annie’s handsome blond husband, as Joe Hardy all grown up and sexy as hell.

Suspense, a puzzle, and courage, these are the hallmarks of the mystery. However, the mystery offers even more to adult readers.

There are two kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery.

The crime novel features Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The crime novel is the story of an honorable man or woman who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. It is the story of the protagonist and not of the murders that are solved. These books are about the quest for honor.

My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books are sometimes dismissed by devotees of the crime novel as unrealistic, "cozy" little stories of drawing room crimes in little villages.

Agatha Christie, whose books have now sold in excess of two billion, understood reality. There may not be a body in the drawing room, but there will always be pain and passion, heartbreak and violence, despair and fury, whether in a village or a metropolis. Christie knew life as most readers live it, ordinary, unremarkable, and fraught with emotion.

Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. In the play, tradesfair audiences saw graphic representations of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is what today’s mysteries offer in a more sophisticated guise.

The sleuth in the traditional mystery explores the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. In trying to solve the crime, Annie Darling or my new sleuth, the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, search out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective wants to know what caused the turmoil in these lives. Readers extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, for their own lives. If this, Dear Reader, is how you treat others . . .

Thankfully, everyday dramas do not usually end in murder, but violent emotions caused by fractured relationships corrode the lives of all involved, often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface. Readers know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the belittling friend, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister.

What could be more humdrum than everyday life as most of us live it? Aren’t those seemingly lighthearted, civilized tales of murder nonsense?

No. They probe personal passions. Nothing can be more powerful than jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, and fear.

It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the readers and writers of traditional mysteries. The crime of murder is a dramatic exaggeration of the misery created by lives that succumb to sin.

I’ve spent a lifetime with murder, even though I can never read accounts of true crime. I find them too harrowing because behind the violent acts I always see the heartbreak of failed humans. In the books, I am trying to understand what created the passions that destroy and offering homage to the detective who wants to bring peace and understanding.

Even though by now the body count in my many books is horrific, I am grateful for my life with murder. It has put me in the best of company. Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness. They believe in justice, decency, and goodness.

Every day we see proof that evil often triumphs. Yet we yearn to live in a good, just, and decent world. There is a world where goodness triumphs, where justice is served, where decency is celebrated, the world of the mystery.

(Article orginally published in the Washington Post)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It's a Mystery to Me


           
by D. R. Ransdell


I’d been thinking about starting a novel when Andy Veracruz sprang into my head. He was at his usual gig at the restaurant where he was the band leader of the mariachi group, and as usual, he noticed more than he should have. In this case, it was his boss’s wife, who waltzed into the restaurant with her lover. Andy wished he’d closed his eyes because he didn’t want to have to tell his boss that his wife was sleeping around, and yet he didn’t want to keep quiet about it either.
            
Thus started Mariachi Murder, with Andy in a predicament about how much to say about the alluring Yiolanda. Although I didn’t set out to start writing this book on a certain day, once I got the initial image I couldn’t help myself. I sat down and wrote about a thousand words. That night I regrouped. The next day I wrote another thousand words, and so on and so forth.

But in my mind I clearly knew what I was doing. That is, I wasn’t quite sure of the plot or exactly how Andy would reach the conclusion, but I knew whodunit before I began. I also knew I wanted to write a murder mystery. I knew I would need several dead bodies. These conventions were clear to me. After all, I’d followed Lawrence Block’s sound writing advice: if you want to write a mystery novel, read 500 first. I think I’d gotten up to 321 before I lost track of my notes and switched everything in my life over to a word processor.

Thus my novel followed a discernible pattern. I had a protagonist who became an amateur sleuth because he had trouble on his hands. I had dead bodies here and there. I had clues. But in the meantime, while I was trying to find a publisher for Andy’s book, I was planning a trip to Thailand with a girlfriend. And that kicked my imagination into high gear.
            

I’d been to Asia once by that time, to Japan., and it was a wonderful experience. I loved the temples and the funny handwriting. I laughed at my misadventures such as arriving at a subway station where every single thing was written in kanji instead of Roman letters.           

I figured that a trip to Thailand would include some of the same kind of adventures. After all, I didn’t know much about Thailand’s history, culture , or language. I didn’t know what the food was like. I didn’t know what I wanted to go see. But right from the beginning I vowed to turn my trip into some kind of novel.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I started drafting. I used my varied experiences for plot lines, for humor, for inspiration. I thought I was merely writing an adventure story with a hint of romance. The funny thing is that without trying to, I wound up writing a mystery.


Thai Twist is no murder mystery. I don’t even categorize it as a mystery per se. But it’s the story of two sisters traveling in Thailand. They’re given a mission: to take a gift to a neighbor’s long-lost relative. That sets them on a trail of discovery that made use of my own best adventures. It was also a mystery that carried through from one end of the book to another.
            

I’ve been told by publishers that mystery readers are mystery readers and romance readers are romance readers and that’s that. However, I disagree. I think there’s often a lot of crossover between genres. And I think that in my own writing, no matter how much I might want to write a romance or an adventure or anything else, I’ll wind up wrapping a mystery inside of it. At the same time, anytime I write a murder mystery, there will be shades of romance and adventure. Otherwise, the result just wouldn’t be one of my stories.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Fat Manuscript is a Dead Manuscript


by Lois Winston

Whether you're writing mysteries or another genre, your manuscript needs a great story, great characters and great writing. The quality of the writing determines the difference between an acceptance and rejection. As a literary agent and author, I see too many submissions where the writer needs to place her manuscript on a diet.

Before you submit your manuscript, make sure it's not bloated with excess wordage that drags down the pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. Your writing must be crisp as well as succinct to catch an editor's or agent's eyes.

The Bloated Manuscript Diet:

1. Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot, or goals, motivations or conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or does it tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene.

2. Repeat #1 for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit chat, ditch it.

3. Do a search of "ly" words. Whenever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive word to replace an existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.

4. Instead of using many verbs to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun.

5. Say it once, then move on. It's not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, next paragraph or next page.

6. Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet words that need to be eliminated.

7. Avoid a laundry list of descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.

8. Do a search for "was." Whenever it's linked with an "ing" verb, omit the "was" and change the tense of the verb.

9. Choose  more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.

10. Omit extraneous tag lines. If it's obvious which character is speaking, omit the tag.

11. Show, don't tell. Whenever possible, you want to "show" your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than "telling" the story.

12. Let your characters' words convey their emotions, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive "said" in tags. You can't grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh or sigh before or afterward, but not while speaking.

13. Avoid non-specific things like "it" and "thing."

14. Describe body movements only when they are essential to the scene. Don't break up dialogue every other sentence with having your characters shrug, giggle, smirk, glance, nod or drum their fingers.

15. Don't fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of filling our speech with "well" and "like" but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.

(Excerpted from THE MYSTERY WRITERS,  now in print, ebook and audiobooks editions, which includes Lois Winston's interview.)