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Recently, while offering advice to a young friend, I blathered to a halt and recalled advice offered to me when I was growing up. I didn’t ask for most of it, but that never stopped adults from handing it out. It seemed almost as if spouting words of wisdom and/or warning was a requirement for being a parent or grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend of the family.
Some advice made sense. (Take along an umbrella if it looks like rain. Don’t dive into a stream until you know where the rocks are. Don’t play with snakes with triangular heads. Don’t pet skunks.)
Some I didn’t see the logic for until I was older. (Always keep a fund of walking-away money. Learn to drive a stick shift. Be careful who you step on as you go up the ladder, because you might meet them when you come down.)
And some seemed suspicious and unreliable—then and now. (Never go out in old or torn underwear because you might be in a car accident. Clean your plate because people in India or China or Africa are starving. Always respect your elders.) I regularly pondered questions like: Would doctors and nurses pause in their efforts to save me in order to comment on the sad state of my undies? If I ate more, how would that help a hungry person in another country? Did I have to respect criminals and disgraced politicians simply because they were older?
When I started taking writing classes in the early 90s, I got an avalanche of fresh advice. My mentors explained the logic for bits of wisdom they dished out, but I soon discovered that every writer walks a different path. What works for one, might not work for another. So, while I took advice about the importance of characterization, plot, and trimming dead language, I ignored several other snippets.
Here are some suggestions I considered and discarded.
Set a daily word-count goal and stick to it. No excuses. I like goals and I love meeting them, but I knew there would be days when I couldn’t crank out enough words to hit the mark. I also knew I’d try to make up for that “failure” and put too much pressure on myself. I decided I would write at least five days a week, but write only what I could, not what I “had to.” Sometimes that’s 3,000 words. Sometimes it’s 300.
Don’t start writing until you have a complete outline. If I adhered to this piece of advice I’d have exactly NO novels in print. Having been chastised in elementary school for getting my Roman numerals and capital letters in all the wrong places, the thought of outlining makes my stomach clench and my creativity go AWOL. Give me a pack of file cards and I recover and start plotting.
Know everything about your characters before you begin. My characters have a way of growing and changing as they come into contact with others. Emotion, conflict, and a need to take action have an impact. Characters may be altered in ways I couldn’t foresee in the plotting stage. So, I establish basic physical characteristics, a bit of back story, and a few notes about their unique outlooks and voices. Then I go for it and see what they’ll say and do.
Over-the-top characters won’t sell. Hmmm. Tell that to Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey. As a reader, I don’t much care for mundane characters with blah lives, so I no longer hold my characters back—except to keep them from tossing the F-bomb.
Write what you know. What I know is that I don’t know much. Writing only what I know would be a limiting experience. So I altered that advice to: “Write what you can imagine. But do research.”
How about you?
What advice have you taken or rejected, cherished or laughed at, passed on or passed over?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. http://www.deadlyduomysteries.com
I admit it. I’m a fan of TV shows and Internet articles about the bizarre, the unexplained, and the weird. I’ll happily sit for hours, munching popcorn and watching programs about UFOs, creatures lurking in lakes and rivers, beasts prowling the jungle, and, of course, Bigfoot.
Mostly I watch those programs alone. My husband—no, make that my long-suffering husband—checks out after about 25 minutes, rolling his eyes as he departs for his man cave. What I find intriguing or amusing, he finds ridiculous.
So, when I mentioned that Bigfoot would feature in the 4th Subbing isn’t for Sissies mystery, I wasn’t surprised by the expression on his face. It implied that I had yet another screw loose.
Undaunted, I plunged ahead with No Substitute for Myth. As the title suggests, the story deals with myths—not stories of gods, goddesses, flying horses, and heroic deeds from ancient times—but mundane and fairly modern stories and sayings and traditions. Often we accept them without question.
For example, when I was young I was told that if I kept popping my knuckles, I’d get painful arthritis. I stopped popping. But guess what? Recently I read about a study that indicated I could pop all I wanted. Granted, the study looked at only a small group, but it led me to conclude that the knuckle-popping warning from my grandmother was another way of telling me to “knock off that annoying habit.”
But, like I said, No Substitute for Myth also involves Bigfoot, less in a reviewing-the-evidence way than in presenting him as a symbol for the unexplained and unknown, for all we wonder about. I’m no Bigfoot expert. And I don’t intend to try to become one.
I admire people with the courage to venture deep into the forest in search of something large and perhaps dangerous. But I’m never going into the backcountry in search of proof. I believe in Bigfoot just enough not to hunt for him. I’d rather take on a crush of shoppers at clearance-sale day or tell a friend her new jeans make her look fat.
And, quite honestly, if I came across a set of giant footprints, I’d walk briskly in the opposite direction of where they were headed. And if I heard what I thought might be Bigfoot, or saw him, I’d run. If I could. I’m more likely to be paralyzed with fright, gibbering with fear, wetting my pants, or all of the above.
If Bigfoot isn’t in the forests of the Pacific Northwest where I live, other not-so-friendly creatures are—bears and wolves and cougars. To trim the odds of running across them, I’ll stay on the sofa with my popcorn and the TV remote.
What about you? Are there myths you hold near and dear? Myths you’d like to see busted? And do you believe Bigfoot exists?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone), and other works. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking.
When I wrote my first TV newsroom mystery (now out of print and going to stay that way), I called it Face Time. The title referred to the amount of time viewers would see a news anchor’s face during a newscast. Over the years, I’d worked with several anchors reeled through tapes of news programs and literally counted the seconds their faces filled the screen. If their co-anchors got more time, they’d complain to the producer and news director.
The title spoke to me. But not to others. I argued with everyone (including writing coach Elizabeth Lyon) who said they didn’t get it, didn’t think much of it after I explained it, and felt it wouldn’t sell books. Eventually they wore me down and I went with Consulted to Death because the death of a media consultant sets the plot in motion and the title signals that the story is a murder mystery.
Although I felt like I was the only writer ever to go to war over a title, I wasn’t. Here’s what Lyon says in her just-released booklet, Crafting Titles:
In my years as a book editor, I’ve seldom seen an early title make the final cut. Critique groups, family, friends, and editors may passionately insist that you change your title. . . Because every novel can have many good titles, set your sights on finding one that captures the essence of your novel, has the right “sound,” and reflects its genre.
In the first section of Crafting Titles (available from Amazon, Crafting Titles by Elizabeth Lyon, Nook, and Kobo), Lyon reviews the many benefits of using a character’s name, like Lolita, or The Great Gatsby. After that, she examines the possibility of using the name of a place:
A setting may become a major character. If place sends seismic waves throughout your story, consider . . . compelling reasons for selecting it as a title.
One of those reasons has to do with the theme of the book, so I pat myself on the back that I used Hemlock Lake as the title for the first of my Catskill Mountains Mysteries. For the protagonist, the remote lake and the small town beside it are poisoned by past events and memories, and those poisonous feelings shape the story and his future.
In Lyon’s words: Titles that telegraph themes may unite many levels of the novel: plot, character development, an image or concrete thing, a place and era, an emotional tone, an atmosphere.
Elsewhere in her booklet, Lyon discusses the use of important things or meaningful objects as titles, the use of quotations and literary references, and titles that fit specific genres. She also considers the ideal length of a title, and branding for sequels and series.
Reader recognition of your book is particularly important if you decide to write a sequel, a prequel, or a series. Publishers—and fans—often hope, or even expect, sequels or series. Novels destined to be sequels or part of a series typically have similar titles. A handy way to accomplish this is by repeating a pattern of words in every book title.
I probably should have done that with my Catskill Mountains Mysteries, but I got carried away with other ideas and—okay, I admit it—didn’t ask for advice. Without conscious thought, however, I set up a pattern for the Subbing isn’t for Sissies Series. The fourth in the series, No Substitute for Myth, is just out.
If you’ve struggled with a title in the past or are struggling now, share your pain with a comment. Elizabeth and I will be happy to respond.
A writing teacher and book editor since 1988, Elizabeth Lyon is the author of half a dozen books on how to write, revise, and market novels and nonfiction. In 2013, she launched a booklet series to explore one topic at a time in greater depth. Booklet #1 is Writing Subtext. Booklet #2 is Crafting Titles.
A reviewer for The Writer magazine selected Manuscript Makeover as one of “8 Great Writing Books in 2008,” and described it as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.” Lyon is also the author of The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, and others.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches). She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com
For some writers, the process of crafting a novel gets easier with each work.
Unfortunately, I’m not a member of that group.
Counting one that I tossed, three that are out of print and will stay that way, and five written with my husband, I just finished novel number 19 (No Substitute for Myth, to be released in June—or so I hope). Even though I knew the characters well because it’s the fourth in the series, and even though I had a clear idea of the plot, I struggled through the middle. Some of that struggle was due to elements I decided to add. Some was due to a feeling of being “held hostage” by my characters and wanting to be out of my office and living a life of my own.
In the previous substitute book, the beginning gave me fits. For number four, that was a cakewalk. Sometimes the ending is elusive, and sometimes I visualize the conclusion long before anything else.
Recently, while waiting for inspiration to deliver a perfect simile, I made a list of what I find most difficult about crafting a novel.
Getting an Idea. Because I’m afraid every idea will be the last, I treat a new one like the discovery of a rare plant. I record my “find” on a file card, post the card on a bulletin board, and then watch it, waiting for fresh shoots and leaves. Meanwhile, other ideas may be passing me by.
Plotting. The planning writers do is equivalent to that huge percentage of an iceberg beneath the surface. It supports your story. But the process of plot-building can be slow, and I’ve found that once characters interact, things can change. So, while I know how a book will start and how it will end, my plans for everything in between are often vague until I get there.
Crafting the Opening Sentences. Unless they come to me in a cheesy-snack-fueled dream, these are tough. So tough, in fact, that I often leave a blank space. When I reach the end, I have a better idea of how to plant the seeds of theme and plot on the first page.
Sitting. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the consequences of spending too much time on your ass-et.
Not Borrowing from Others. I don’t mean plagiarizing; I mean that unconscious shift toward a style or turn of phrase brought on by admiration for the skill of the author I’m reading at the time.
Making it Through the Middle. No matter how many file cards I’ve accumulated and how much plotting I’ve done, sometimes I feel like I’ve waded through a swamp only to step into quicksand. Often I have to go back to the beginning and work forward, reintroducing myself to characters I created weeks ago and have half-forgotten. The ending, like a mirage, seems to retreat before me.
Controlling the Snacking. When I’m stressed—and being stuck in figurative quicksand is stressful—I snack. (And I’m not talking about munching on baby carrots or apple slices.)
Taking Advice. Unless I’ve asked for it, I hate getting advice. And even when I’ve asked, I hate taking suggestions. So, when I’m deep enough in a quandary that I solicit ideas, I set them aside for a week while I work past a bout of I-should-have-seen-that resentment.
Ignoring Advice. I’m referring to the unsolicited and random suggestions that come from well-meaning folks who always wanted to write but never did. “You should write about my garden club and be sure to name all the members or someone will be mad.” “Don’t forget to give your protagonist a few cats.” “You should set your stories in Bermuda.”
The Ending. I think of an ending as the perfect meal—all the good stuff on the plate in portions that are just right. Not so much that servings and flavors run together. Not so little that I close the book feeling hungry. Just enough that I’m satisfied and want more from the same chef.
The title. Titles are tough because a few words have to do a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, they have to do so much lifting that I’m going to “save my strength” and save the topic for next month, when I’ll enlist writing coach Elizabeth Lyon to help me.
In the meantime, what do you think is the most difficult phase of writing a novel and why?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com http://www.deadlyduoduhblog.blogspot.com/
Confessions of a Shoeoholic
In 1890, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Journal, “The sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inner tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.” I couldn’t agree more except to add “perfectly well-dressed and wearing a pair of red stilettos.”
There are only two things I collect: books and shoes. My book collection is larger than my shoe collection only because books are more affordable. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d send each of my sisters a big check, donate to my favorite animal rescue organizations, and then I’d head for the nearest city and buy every pair of shoes that caught my eye.
I suspect my shoe obsession had something to do with the need to rebel against my mother, not that she denied me footwear. But I do remember my mother commenting once on one of her friends having owned sixteen pairs of shoes, and “who did she think she was?” I also remember my mother ogling a pair of red shoes, but not buying them because she already owned a pair on red shoes and “what would people think?” Because of my mother’s beliefs and her reluctance to live wild, I swore I’d never own less than sixteen pairs of shoes and I’d buy as many red ones as I could afford. Right now, I have six pair.
And guess what else? I saw a news flash the other morning announcing that women who wear high heels well into their seventies are less likely to experience life-threatening falls. Seems that high heels improves one’s balance.
My love of shoes found its way into my Sydney Lockhart mysteries. Being a private detective, and having to dress in disguise on occasion, Sydney’s usual footwear are saddle shoes (the series is set in the 1950s), and cowboy boots (Sydney’s from Texas). But when she’s not chasing bad guys, Sydney dresses up in snug sweaters, pencil shirts, and high heels. There’s also a bit of rebel in Sydney too. Much to her mother’s annoyance, Sydney refers to her high heels as her tart shoes. And her sidekick cousin, Ruth Echland, wouldn’t be caught dead in anything but the latest Ferragamos.
Check out my latest Sydney Lockhart mystery, Murder at the Driskill.
Kathleen Kaska writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart mysteries set in the 1950s. Her first two books Murder at the Arlington and Murder at the Luther, were selected as bonus-books for the Pulpwood Queens Book Group, the largest book group in the country.
The third book in the series, Murder at the Galvez, is set at the Galvez Hotel in Galveston. Kaska also writes the Classic Triviography Mystery Series, which includes The Agatha Christie Triviography and Quiz Book, The Alfred Hitchcock Triviography and Quiz Book, and The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book. The Alfred Hitchcock and the Sherlock Holmes trivia books are finalists for the 2013 EPIC award in nonfiction. Her nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story (University Press of Florida), was published in 2012. http://www.kathleenkaska.com, http://www.kathleenkaskawrites.blogspot.com/
It rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest. Yearly totals exceed the national average. Some folks describe the climate here in Washington as nine months of rain followed by three months of drought. Those nine wet months have given birth to a wealth of terms to describe the stuff dropping from the sky. Increased interest in weather phenomena has helped add to that list.
When I grew up in the Catskills back in the 1950s, long before 24/7 weather reporting and weather-related reality shows, we had relatively few words to describe precipitation: snow, sleet, rain, thunderstorms, hail, and drizzle. Today, I hear more descriptive words: mist, mizzle, sprinkles, deluge, drenching rain, driving rain, pouring rain, torrential rain, continuous rain, freezing rain, and intermittent all of the above. There’s also fog, freezing fog, and snow in all its forms and accumulations.
All that winter precipitation makes for glorious green growth, tall trees and rushing rivers. It makes for great skiing, boating, fishing, gardening, and dozens of other recreational opportunities.
It also makes for a lot of dank and dreary days.
My first Northwest winter (1989-90) was filled with new experiences and I scarcely noticed the weather. My second winter, however, was ugly. Fog moved in, not on little cat feet, but like a 200-pound cougar driving a bulldozer. That fog hung around for weeks. I made it through by indulging in massive bouts of comfort eating followed by rolling up in a quilt for yet another nap.
The next fall, having finally shed the winter poundage, I vowed to adopt a healthier lifestyle and focus on the weather in my fictional settings instead of outside my window. By spring I was halfway through a novel and hardly noticing the thick drops hammering on the roof. (Except when the gutters clogged with leaves or a leak appeared in the living room ceiling.)
Since then, I’ve followed the same plan:
• Step up those vitamin D capsules.
• Beam on those bulbs. Light up the workspace. Strings of twinkle lights are always fun. Phototherapy with a light box may brighten your mood and regulate your circadian rhythms.
• Cut back on greasy foods and heavy meals. (I know, I know. That’s tough to do with those holiday parties and treats, but give it your best shot.)
• Don’t overdo coffee and caffeine. Sure, it wakes you up on a dreary morning, but too much can mess with your sleep patterns.
• The same goes for alcohol.
• Escalate the exercise.
• Get out and confront precipitation. Walk in all weather.
• Concentrate on what you can control and try not to think about what you can’t.
• Do nice things for yourself.
• Vary the routine. Go places you’ve never been—even if it’s just a new coffee shop or walking trail.
• Catch up on movies you’ve been meaning to get to and books yet to be read.
• Reconnect with old friends and make new ones.
• Ask for advice about beating the blahs.
If you have tips for powering your writing through the winter, please share them in the comment space. I’m always looking for ideas to add to the list.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone, just released). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches). www.deadlyduomysteries.com
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking.
One rainy day in the 1950s, my mother got out a set of aging paper dolls she’d played with as a child. Sadly, they didn’t survive for long. Not many toys or games did. My brothers and I played hard.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that the tiny tabs designed to hold outfits in place never quite did their jobs, I loved the variety of clothing and the speed and ease with which I could make changes. It was far quicker than dressing the rubber-skinned ballerina doll for which my grandmother sewed skirts, tops, a cape, and even a beret.
In high school I created outfits for myself—seldom with much success—by stitching up simple jumpers and skirts, borrowing from friends, and buying what I could stretch my allowance to cover. All of that took time, time I spent yearning for what I saw as the cheap convenience of paper clothing. If only I could sketch a sweater and slip it on, paint a pair of paints, crayon a coat.
Now, with words instead of art supplies or needles, thread, and fabric, I do just that for my characters. Clothing them is far more enjoyable than clothing the dolls of the past or outfitting myself.
First, the sky is the limit. There’s no budget, no need to save up or ponder the necessity of each purchase. If Mrs. Ballantine from No Substitute for Murder insists on three strands of pearls and a cashmere wrap to wear with a silk dress, she gets them. If Dan Stone from Hemlock Lake demands top-of-the-line hiking boots, no problem. I’ll even throw in a pair of thermal socks.
Second, there’s no need to alter, hem, let out a seam, or take a tuck. Everything fits, no matter what shape the character is in. That also means there’s no need for a character to shed a few pounds or hit the gym to tone up.
Third, there are no storage issues. There’s no need to toss something old because a character bought something new. There’s always room in that fictional closet for a few more items.
Fourth, if a change of outfit is necessary to the progression of the action, it can be accomplished in the time it takes to write a sentence or two.
Fifth, unless the plot calls for an item to be impossible to find, out of stock, too large, or too small, what characters want is always available in the right size and color.
Sixth, I have the right to scoff at the dictates of fashion. Nothing goes out of style unless I want it to.
Seventh, I don’t have to dress every character every day. When they’re not in a scene, they’re on their own. I sometimes wonder if they sit at the edge of a page wearing outfits from previous scenes or if they slip into loungewear or strip down for a shower or soak.
How about you?
What advantages do you see to creating clothing with words?
What are your favorite fictional outfits?
And what do you think characters wear when they’re not appearing on the pages?
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries, Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood. Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and five novels written with her husband, Mike Nettleton: The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor and Deception at Devil’s Harbor.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Her interests are reading, gardening, and NOT cooking. www.deadlyduomysteries.com