13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

23 comments:

Barb Goffman said...

This was lovely, Bonnie. I too often involve my family in my work, remembering family incidents I can use in my stories, relatives who inspire characters and deserve killing. (Just kidding!) I know that's not what you meant, but to each her own. :)

Art Taylor said...

Terrific post, Bonnie! I love hearing about the various roles that various family members have played in the evolution of your writing career. And I still think that the Authors' Alley presentation you and your daughter did at Malice was one of the most interesting and insightful author presentations I can recall. Love all this!

janice law said...

Charming- clearly the family that plots together (literarily speaking) thrives together.

Richard Krauss said...

Nice! Thank you and HMD B.K.

Mary Sutton said...

Terrific post. My daughter once helped me brainstorm ways to kill a guy - with three of her classmates in the back seat of the car. Maybe not the best time and place, huh?

Steve Liskow said...

Wonderful post, B.K., more proof that the family that plays together slays together.

My wife is a terrific sounding board for ideas or problems, probably because she's a better writer than I am. I also think that as a stage actor, she's more practical about how to do things.

We all have some kind of information group or support group or both, and when it's family, you know they're always there. They also understand what you mean more easily because they've had plenty of practice.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Having met Dennis and your daughters at Malice, it is interesting to see how much they play a role in your success. You may be the "creative storyteller," but your collage makes a difference. Enjoyed the post.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, everyone! Barb, I've used a few relatives as models for characters--not members of my immediate family, but relatives who doubtlessly don't read anything I write and have so little self-knowledge they probably wouldn't recognize themselves anyway. Art, I'm glad you enjoyed that presentation--I did, too. The only one that rivaled it, for me, was a time when I visited Rachel's middle-school class and read a scene from a story while she acted it out, using a stuffed cat as a prop. Janice, I couldn't agree more! Richard, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. Mary, I wonder what those classmates told their parents when they got home! (Actually, the classmates probably envied your daughter--not many kids get chances to make creative contributions to their parents' work.)

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, Steve. I have a friend who's a theater professor, and she's given me valuable advice about improving scenes, probably because she's so good at visualizing things she reads. And I agree about family members being good sounding boards--they may not be as objective as some other beta readers, but objectivity isn't always what we need most, at least in the early stages. Debra, my family's been an incredible source of insight, information, good ideas, and enthusiastic support. I could never thank them enough.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Bonnie, what a wonderful post. I need to thank you and your family for embracing me. And, I need to thank you for writing such beautiful stories that show why family ties are so important. I'm very grateful.

B.K. Stevens said...

Paula, we're grateful for your friendship--and of course I'm grateful for your kind words, too! I'm glad we got a chance to talk at Malice.

GBPool said...

What a positively inspiring account of your family and your writing. I guess letting children know from an early age that they are truly a part of the family keeps them close as they grow up and even move away. The fact you respected their opinion and your husband's opinion, too, keeps you guys close. And your books are terrific, too.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, Gayle. My husband and daughters have definitely inspired me--without their help and their enthusiastic support, I don't know if I would have kept writing. And we've all had a lot of fun working on the stories together.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bonnie, you've done well, both with family and with stories. Expect to see more in AHMM.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, R.T. The family is my greatest joy, of course--nothing else could compare. And AHMM has accepted two stories in recent months--don't know when they'll appear, but I hope it won't be long.

Kaye George said...

How can you miss with a family like that? You're so fortunate! I love this post and loved sitting with you and Dennis and Rachel at this year's Malice. Write on! I'll look for your next stories. But I always do.

B.K. Stevens said...

Kaye, I know I'm fortunate, and I'm grateful every day. And I'm so glad you and your daughter could join us at the Agatha banquet. You've got a wonderful family, too. I think we've both learned that when a family is founded on love, that holds it together through good times and hard times.

jrlindermuth said...

Lovely story, Bonnie. For some it's a chore to get family members to even read a story, let alone contribute to the writing.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, John. And you'll notice I focused only on my immediate family. If I'd focused on my in-laws, it would have been a very different post. I learned many years ago that it's dangerous to make even a passing reference to my writing around them. So I don't.

Eve Fisher said...

B.K., it sounds like you have a wonderful rapport with your daughters.

B.K. Stevens said...

Eve, I think we do have a good rapport. That's not to say that we don't disagree from time to time, but we generally find it pretty easy to talk to each other--and when I'm upset about something or have to make a decision, my husband and daughters are the ones I want to talk to most.

John Floyd said...

Bonnie, I loved this look inside your family--writing's sure a family affair, with you guys. And what a great partnership you've had with AHMM!--that's where I first saw your name, long ago. Your stories there are always wonderful.

Best to you and Dennis and your daughters.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, John. Writing's definitely a family affair for us--that's undoubtedly one of the main reasons I enjoy it so much. And I'm very fortunate, and very grateful, that AHMM has been willing to provide a home for so many of my stories.