Sunday, October 01, 2017

Heros, Heroines, and Detectives


One of the key points in a story is variously referred to as the “black moment” or the point at which “all is lost” or “the dark night of the soul.” It’s the point at which your main character reaches their low point, where everything they’ve been working toward turns out to be false, and there’s no hope of ever achieving their goal.

Whatever you call it, it usually occurs shortly before the climax of a book. In fact, it sets up the climax and the thrill ride to the end as the hero or heroine comes out of it with a revelation as to what they’re really searching for or a new way to achieve their goal.

In mystery stories, the black moment is often the discovery that the primary suspect in a murder couldn’t possibly have done it. Frequently, that suspect is killed, showing the sleuth that the killer must be someone else. The detective has to start over with the evidence and figure out where they went wrong.

Unlike other genres, the main character isn’t necessarily the one who experiences this emotional death. Sherlock Holmes is the perfect example of this. When circumstances appear to stump him, he, like a superhero, doesn’t despair. Instead, he withdraws into his own head, furiously thinking until he arrives at the solution. Sometimes he’s not wrong, but to all appearances he’s failed, especially in the eyes of Dr. Watson, the chronicler of his stories.

When I was developing the indomitable Lilliana Wentworth, I had this kind of sleuth in mind. She does have her flaws and weaknesses, but nothing can keep her down when she sets her mind to it.

The series opens with her still mourning the death of her husband after nearly two years, and she fears that she’s developing dementia, something she’s seen too much of in the retirement home where she lives. She has closed herself off from most other people. The only bright spot in her life is her small collection of African violets.

And then there’s a murder, and she’s the primary suspect. Forced into proving her innocence, she finds renewed purpose in solving the crime.

For three books, Lilliana Wentworth is Sherlock Holmes. Or Jessica Fletcher. Or Miss Marple. Nothing really rattles her, even when her initial deductions turn out to be wrong.

And then, as I was writing “Double Pink Murder,” Lilliana had a genuine black moment. It wasn’t something I had planned for my invincible heroine. It just happened as I was visualizing the scene. Part of me always intended on going back and changing it.

But during revision, I got to that scene and just couldn’t eliminate her dark night of the soul. I wrestled with this because I knew in my heart of hearts that that’s the way I would have reacted in that situation. It’s how anyone who was human, given the circumstances, would feel. So I left it in.

But I was always uncertain about it, fearful that Lilliana wouldn’t live up to the expectations readers had of her character, and they’d be disappointed. So far, no one has mentioned that. Not my beta readers and not in any of the reviews the book has gotten. But I’ve still been uneasy.

Until I saw the meme posted at the beginning of this blog on Facebook recently. Because it really is true. The indomitable hero—or heroine—is still human. It’s not that the heroine doesn’t cry. The heroine is the person who is able to cry; and then carry on and emerge victorious.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Starting A New Book

There are lots of moving parts that have to come together in order to write a good mystery.

You need a sleuth, a victim, a murderer, and enough suspects to keep the reader from guessing whodunit too early in the book. Each of your suspects and, of course, the killer, must have a motive to kill the victim.

You need an interesting setting. Most people don’t consciously think about this, but could Robert B. Parker’s Spenser live anywhere other than Boston? Setting often becomes a character in itself. Certainly how your protagonist sees their setting tells you a lot about them. When the setting is different for every book in a series, like Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries, it’s even more important to focus on it. What is it about this particular place that makes it essential to this story?

You need a convincing murder weapon, one that was available to the murderer and that he or she would logically use.

You need clues, carefully planted, so that when the reader comes to the climax, they are not only surprised by who the killer is, but also have the reaction, “I should have guessed!” In other words, then ending has to be logical and proceed from the information earlier in the story.

If you’re writing part of a series, you have to remember to bring in whatever continuing subplots you have so that readers who are waiting for the answers to questions such as “Will they or won’t they?” or “Does this couple succeed in adopting a child?” or “Whatever happened to X’s sister?” are answered or at least addressed. And you have to bring in just enough of them to satisfy the reader without overwhelming the main plot.

You also have to have what I call the writer’s hook. Just as there’s a hook for the reader (usually stated in the book description) that makes them want to read the book, the writer needs something to make her want to write the book.

Since I do write in series, I already have my sleuth and a cast of characters from which to choose for the victim, killer, and suspects. But I’m not fond of killing my continuing characters, so I usually come up with a new character for the victim. Unfortunately, sometimes that means killing off a great character. I really loved Fox Fordyce in “Royal Purple Murder” and would have liked to keep her around. But then I would have had to write a different book. There are days when I regret that I didn’t do that.

Making one of the continuing characters the killer has the same problem. If I send them off to prison, they won’t be available for future books. So, again, I usually come up with a new character who won’t be missed by either me or my readers. It’s easier to consider a continuing character as a suspect, but you can’t always have them not be the killer, or regular readers will eliminate them right off the bat, spoiling the surprise.

Right now, I’m at the stage of developing the characters for a new book. My brain has had some ideas for new ones, but I’m not sure whether they’re victim, killer, or suspect. There’s a lot of exploration at this stage. I spent four hours yesterday researching something for one of those new characters. Fascinating stuff, but probably very little of it will make it into the book.

This morning I pulled some books on Arizona off my bookshelf for another character. I’m not sure whether they’ll help me or not. But I’ll spend a lot of time looking through them to see if a bit of information sparks a new aspect of this character.

I spend a lot of time on developing characters since it’s the characters who define the story, Most of the time when I’m writing, I sit back and watch the scene play out in my head. The characters do things that are natural for them to do, so it’s important for me to know them well. That doesn’t mean one hasn’t popped up in the middle of a story and demanded to control what happens next. This is both unsettling and delightful. Usually, these unexpected intrusions have a mind of their own, like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus full grown, and I don’t have to work at character development for them very much.

So far, in the African Violet Club Mysteries, the setting has been the village of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona. But having too many murders occur in a small town, often referred to as Cabot Cove Syndrome, becomes unbelievable over time. So should I have Lilliana go somewhere else once in a while? I’ve been thinking about that and even have a few places in mind.

As an example of a weapon, the softball bat in "True Blue Murder" fit perfectly with Lilliana Wentworth, my senior sleuth, as the killer. She played softball regularly and the bat belonged to her. It was left in a storage room, so it was also available to other suspects who had access to the building.

Right now, I’ve got a good murder weapon for the new book, but I’m not sure it’s capable of being wielded by all of the suspects. A puzzlement.

Since I don’t even know who is killed, much less who killed him or her, the clues are on the back burner.

I’m juggling subplots in the background, weighing what could be the next development with each of them while not focusing on them. Again, this has to wait until I know more about the people in the book.

As far as the writer’s hook, that was easy for this book. In “Double Pink Murder,” I needed a disruption at City Hall when Lilliana went to visit the police chief. Out of a newspaper article I’d read not too long ago, I came up with the idea of a developer who wanted to make an old ghost town into a tourist attraction. Now, I love ghost towns. The whole idea fascinates me. There are many of them in Arizona where mining operations petered out, and the population abandoned them. I also love Old Tucson Studios, a western town that was used for the sets of a whole bunch of western movies. They do tours and reenactments and have a lot of memorabilia from those westerns. So rubbing those two ideas together got me really excited. I’m getting all sorts of jumping off points from that for the plot.

It’s early days for this story, but I love the discovery stage of writing a new novel. I thought you might find it interesting.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hiatus

It seems as if blogging on a daily basis never works out for me. Perhaps that’s because each time I start, it’s because I’m trying to motivate myself to work harder. But it’s also possible that I feel like I’m not working hard enough because I can’t due to circumstances.

In this case, it’s my vision. For months, I’ve had problems seeing clearly. Using my eyes for any extended period of time is difficult. That includes working on the computer, reading, and even watching television, although that presents the least stress. Reading street signs while driving had become impossible. And I avoid driving at night because I can’t see clearly enough.

I thought it was time to get that cataract surgery my optometrist has been talking about for three years. When it came time for my regular appointment, she agreed with me and recommended an ophthalmologist. It took a month to get that appointment, so more time with bad vision.

When I saw the ophthalmologist, she wasn’t very encouraging. She told me my vision was worse than could be accounted for by the cataracts I have, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with my vision otherwise. No macular degeneration, no glaucoma, nothing. She couldn’t guarantee my vision would be better after cataract surgery. In fact, she couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t be worse, although I had the feeling that was the usual doctor-being-cautious routine, because they can’t guarantee much of anything and don’t want to give you cause for a malpractice suit.

Needless to say, I wasn’t getting warm fuzzies from this situation, which she could tell, so she recommended I get a second opinion so I could feel more comfortable about my options. I asked her if she could recommend someone and she did. Another month’s wait for an appointment.

Meanwhile, the eye irritation I usually get this time of year from tree pollen and the dry, hot desert air got progressively worse. I added artificial tears to my daily routine.

The second ophthalmologist appointment happened this week. The good news is that this doctor was a lot more confident about the benefits of having cataract surgery and thought it would clear up my vision, although I’ll have to wear glasses at least part of the time afterwards. She had a plan, as opposed to an I-don’t-know-what's-going-on attitude. So I decided to schedule the surgery with her.

That will take place in two weeks. Between pre-op and post-op appointments and time for healing, followed by getting suitable glasses afterwards, I don’t see reading and writing getting any easier for a while. So I’m going to not put pressure on myself to accomplish a whole lot until August, which means there’s not much point in doing a daily progress blog.

As Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something. See you in August.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Double Pink Murder is Now Live!

Wow, that was quick! It can take up to 72 hours from the time an author clicks "Publish" on Amazon until it's available for sale. Usually, it takes less than 24, but today it only took about an hour before I got the confirmation email.

Get your copy at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B072VQW52S/

I'll post what I've done so far today now, but I'll update this if I do anything later.

As expected, I spent a good deal of time researching material for the science fiction novel I have in my head. Fascinating stuff. I've always been intrigued by space and boldly going where no man has gone before, so I can spend hours and hours reading about habitable planets and red dwarf stars and such.

My cover designer, Susan Coils, is fantastic! When I sent her the specs for the paperback cover last week, she said she probably wouldn't get to it until "next week." Last night, the cover showed up in my mailbox. It looked perfect, so the print version of Double Pink Murder won't be too far behind the ebook version.

I also emailed a fellow mystery writer with what I keep in my series bible. Hmmm... that sounds like another blog post. If anyone's interested, let me know in the comments.

Post Days 3

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunday, a scheduled day off.

I'm starting to feel the itch to start a new novel. I can't go very many days without writing. It feels like a very long time since I wrote something new, even though it wasn't too long ago that I finished Double Pink Murder. Today I found myself daydreaming about what I will write next. I believe I'll break out the pen and notebook tomorrow morning and start brainstorming in earnest.

Posting Days: 2