21 January 2023

A Cold Case


 

Those of you who know me well know I'm not fond of winter weather. My friends in northern climes often say, to irritate me, "I love the changing of the seasons." Well, I love it too, when it changes to spring. I get cold just writing about wintertime, which is something I did for my latest story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

"Going the Distance" (Jan/Feb 2023 issue) isn't a Christmas story any more than Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but it happens during that time of the year, and during a freak snowstorm in the Deep South. That's also the home of the three characters in my Ray Douglas mystery series--former lawyer Jennifer Parker, Deputy Cheryl Grubbs, and Sheriff Raymond Kirk Douglas (his father was a movie fan). In this, the seventh installment of my lighthearted series set in the fictional Mississippi town of Pinewood, Ray and his parters in crime(solving) are investigating what could be the attempted murder of a mutual friend. As usual in these stories, my female characters are smarter than the males (I like for my fiction to reflect real life), but the unusual thing is the frigid weather, which complicates everything. Southerners often don't do well in low temperatures, and we especially aren't good at dealing with snow. We don't know how to walk in it or drive in it, and, as I heard someone say the other day, it tends to make shoppers get into fistfights at the Piggly Wiggly. 

As it turned out, I had a good time writing this story, because it used a familiar setting and it used characters I've come to know and understand. Best of all, it involved something I've started doing in some of these Sheriff Douglas installments: I try to include several different mysteries in the same story--or at least a lot of different sets of clues that could lead to the solution. The first of the good sheriff's adventures, "Trail's End," uses only one main mystery that the reader can try to solve before the protagonists do, but the second, "Scavenger Hunt," has three separate puzzles in the story. The next three installments, "Quarterback Sneak," "The Daisy Nelson Case," and "Friends and Neighbors," have one mystery each; "The Dollhouse" has two; "Going the Distance" has one, but with many different clues; and the eighth installment, "The POD Squad"--which has been accepted at AHMM but hasn't yet been published--again has three completely separate mysteries in one story. I hope that kind of plot complication makes the story more enjoyable to read; I know it makes it more fun to write. A quick note: "The Daisy Nelson Case" is the only story in this series that has appeared in a market other than AHMM. It was published in Down & Out: The Magazine in December 2020.

This apparent reluctance of mine to write tales set in cold weather is nothing new: I can think of only a dozen or so of my stories that took place during the winter months. One was in Strand Magazine, one in The Saturday Evening Post, several in Woman's World, two in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, several in anthologies, etc.--but the percentage is still small. All writers have quirks, and I guess that's one of mine. I suppose I feel more comfortable and more believable making my characters sweat instead of shiver, unless the shivers are a result of the plot.

The same thing goes for locations. I've never done a tally, but I suspect at least three-fourths of my short stories are set in the American South, which I consider to be Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Texas and Virginia are questionable--probably Florida too, for that matter--but I doubt I'd get many arguments about the rest. I've traveled a lot in my years with IBM and the Air Force, and I'm comfortable writing about faraway locations, but I feel absolutely confident writing about my own part of the country, and about characters named Bubba and Patty Sue and Nate and Billy Ray. I went to school with those folks.

How about you? Do those of you who are story-or-novel writers prefer to create stories about things familiar to you or do you enjoy the challenge of setting your fiction elsewhere, or even in different time periods? What do you think are the pluses and minuses of both?


As for me, I'll probably continue spinning tales mostly about my own green and humid corner of the world. I know its people, its towns, its history, its problems--and its weather. Besides, writing about things near my own Zip Code usually means I don't have to do as much research, or go places that require gloves and overcoats. 

Matter of fact, I think I'll go adjust the thermostat.


Have a good two weeks.



28 comments:

  1. John, you may want to consider moving to Massachusetts. With recent climate change, we seem to b e having warmer weather than the deep snow South. As for more than one mystery per story, I can only marvel at your awesome talent! I’m happy to think of just one.
    Edward Lodi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Edward, you're too kind--remember we're talking about *short* mysteries here, so it's not hard sometimes to fit two or three of those into the same story.

      As for Massachusetts, I can only say that my visits to Boston in the past have been pretty chilly. But you're right, temperatures everywhere seem to have been different this winter. Regarding the use of weather in a story, I try not to overdo it, or, as Elmore Leonard famously said, begin with it--but I think it can sometimes be useful, mainly to help the reader "feel" what's happening a bit more. Hey, whatever works . . .

      Thanks so much for stopping in, here.

      Delete
  2. I set a lot of mine in South Dakota, even though I grew up in California and spent a lot of years in Georgia. I like to have more than one mystery going on in a story, too - just for the fun of it, and also because isn't that really how life works? There's a lot of weird stuff out there, and it's all linked one way or another. BTW, loved "Going the Distance"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Eve. Thank you--I'm glad you liked the story. That one was fun to write, mainly because it was almost all dialogue.

      I hadn't thought of it before, but you're right--that IS the way life works. Nobody but the old TV detectives could focus on only one problem at a time.

      By the way, one of these days I hope you and I'll both have stories in the same AHMM issue again! That magazine has been good to both of us, over the years . . .

      Delete
  3. Interesting post, John. As usual, it got me thinking about what I do and don't do, and one of the things I need to do much more is incorporate weather (and setting in general) into my stories. Like you, I seldom use winter, even though I live in Connecticut and grew up in central Michigan, only a stone's throw from Lake Huron.

    When I do mention weather, I tend to use hot and humid summer, but I don't know why.
    Oddly, my only novel to use weather as a factor was The Kids Are All Right, which used a blizzard as a complication in the plot. And that book was a finalist for a Shamus Award.

    Go figure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Go figure, indeed. It's hard to know, ahead of time, what'll work. As settings go, I try to say a lot about a setting only if it's essential to the plot. If it's not--if the story couldn't just as well happened in another location--I don't say much about the setting, the weather, etc., at all.

      BTW, Steve, I spent a pretty chilly (for me) July in Michigan (Flint) many years ago. At least the first week of July was. Up until then, I hadn't thought a cool summer day was even possible.

      Thank you as always for your thoughts here. Keep writing!

      Delete
  4. As an Alabama native half raised in Florida, I'll admit the cold is really nipping at us. And the main writing I'm doing right now has been a few guest blogs, pitches for podcasts, and sample articles.

    I've been writing a series of mystery stories and a heist caper submitted to AHMM. Most of them are set in Florida with the first few also set in Alabama. Yet the heist caper chronicles the entire Eastern Seaboard (including Edward's native Massachusetts) while one detective story has the female sleuth (the central character of the detective series) goes cross country in one story. Another instance is how the detective series is set in the present day while the heist caper is 1940's-1950's. The detective is strong, independent, and a loving mother while doing her job. While a female character in the heist caper is mentally disabled and treated as a victim (yet accurate, given the era and its circumstances.

    Regardless of the story, I've found in the last few years a personal connection helps anchor things. With the Alabama-Florida detective stories, things can be a bit predictable and rigid, but it can reliable and you know where the story goes. The cross country stories are more free flow and fun, but you end up writing and rewriting until something fits.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Justin, you're obviously a busy man. Your series sounds interesting, and I agree: a good knowledge of a setting helps, but sometimes it's fun to take your characters to different places as well. Good luck with the series and the heist story also.

      (Writing and then rewriting until something fits sounds familiar!)

      Thanks for visiting SleuthSayers.

      Delete
  5. Hi John, I’m one of those Northerners who loves the four seasons. Sunny all year long? It doesn’t go with the NYC snarl.Aside from this serious flaw, I am a fan and admirer of your comments, articles and short stories. Cheers, Mary Jo Robertiello

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My hat's off to you, Mary Jo. Give me a T-shirt, shorts, and flipflops all year long and I'd be happy. And the flaw's mine, not yours.

      Thank you so much for the kind words--I'm pleased to hear you enjoy my stories and rants. Take care, stay in touch, and keep up the good work!

      Delete
  6. John, in my short stories the emphasis on dialogue and character doesn't leave much room for weather. But as for setting, these days I either write more and more about what I know—being older, the 1950s of my childhood, and being Jewish—or go completely into Here Be Dragons territory with the 16th century Ottoman Empire, complete with janissaries, eunuchs, and sea battles, or else shapeshifters in Nashville. Well, I've been to Nashville, thanks to mystery conferences. The truth is, in spite of your wonderful stories and all the others in similar settings, this New Yorker still has trouble believing that real people actually live their lives in places where everybody, literally everybody, knows them and all their business.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Liz! Yep, "write what you know" is still good advice (even if there is a big market for science fiction). I just feel comfortable writing about things I grew up around, including some of the wildest real-life characters one could imagine. (Don't get me started.)

      Yep, people DO live in places where everyone knows everyone else's business--my hometown (population around 200) is one of those. To use my late mother as an example, some of those people would be offended if neighbors *didn't* let everyone else know their business. Towns like that are in another world these days, and in some ways a better world.

      Delete
  7. Almost everything I write as a pure mystery is set in Texas because Texas is home. My scifi mysteries are set in unidentified East Coast big cities in the future because when you rewrite the world you can set the story anywhere. As a lifelong Texan, I'll agree with your definition of "the South." Only East Texas fits with the traditional South in green, humid climate and in speech. An East Texas drawl is distinct from a West Texas twang.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey N.M.--Yep, I almost mentioned, in my little geographical summary, that East Texas always falls into the Southern category (even its landscape looks just like most of the rest of the South). I also agree with the differences in accent that you pointed out. Some of the same differences apply to south Louisiana (of course) and even places like southern Georgia, which seem to have their own special dialects.

      As for the settings, isn't it great, that feeling of freedom that you get when you write science fiction or other paranormal tales? You can indeed invent new worlds when you do that.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

      Delete
  8. As a born and raised New Englander, I hate snow and the cold. The snowstorm is pretty for about an hour, and then it's just a mess. I rarely use winter in a story because I dislike all the work it takes to get dressed and out, and down the steps to the car, and then to get the car out. You see? All those wasted words while the pot plot is boiling and sending up steamy warmth. I'll stick with nicer weather, spring, summer and fall. Good post, Susan Oleksiw

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Susan, we are in agreement--although I have a lot less firsthand experience with all that than you do. Next time I'm boiling a plot I'll be reminded of your post.

      Delete
  9. As an Australian now living in Brittany, I changed the setting of most of my fiction instinctively from Queensland (similar to Florida in many ways, I suspect) to my new home. I do like my settings to be around my village in Brittany, probably because it's a great landscape for mystery (marshes and stone circles and castles and WWII bunkers...find me on Instagram!) and also because I like to actually go and sit in the place a story is set. One of my unpublished short mysteries is set in a nearby river port (La Roche Bernard) and the pittoresque setting plays an important role in the plot. I've set short stories in England and Ireland, countries I know quite well from visits, as well as culturally, being Australian, but I rarely set them in completely foreign settings because I know I'd have to do a lot of research to get it right. All the same, I believe it's the story that makes the decisions more often than the author himself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Okay, I can't seem to login flat the moment for some reason. I'm not "anonymous", it's Cameron Trost camerontrost.com

      Delete
  10. As an Australian now living in Brittany, I changed the setting of most of my fiction instinctively from Queensland (similar to Florida in many ways, I suspect) to my new home. I do like my settings to be around my village in Brittany, probably because it's a great landscape for mystery (marshes and stone circles and castles and WWII bunkers...find me on Instagram!) and also because I like to actually go and sit in the place a story is set. One of my unpublished short mysteries is set in a nearby river port (La Roche Bernard) and the picturesque setting plays an important role in the plot. I've set short stories in England and Ireland, countries I know quite well from visits, as well as culturally, being Australian, but I rarely set them in completely foreign settings because I know I'd have to do a lot of research to get it right. All the same, I believe it's the story that makes the decisions more often than the author himself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good to hear from you, Cameron, whether you're Anonymous or Real.

      That is indeed a good landscape for mysteries. And I like your observation that the story males the decisions.

      I too enjoy going to the place a story will be set (if possible) and take in the sights, smells, sounds, etc. Sometimes (not always) the inclusion of some of that will make the location more interesting and "real" to the reader.

      What a crazy job we have . . .

      Delete
  11. I've lived at one time or another in just about every part of the country, so I have a lot of "familiars". But most of my time has been spent in Southern California and Nevada, and I prefer writing about dry and dusty over green and humid any day. I like to write about sweat that comes from fear, not air too heavy to breathe. Circumstances led me to New England and I've had some success writing about snow, but I really hate when it takes more time to get dressed to take a walk than it does to take a walk, so while my toes thaw, I revert to the land of the Santa Ana winds, where Raymond Chandler's meek housewives "feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eugenia, I bet you DO have a lot of familiars. And I confess to having set a lot of my own stories in Southern California. One reason is that it's a good place for stories, period, and another reason is that I've spent so much time there myself, on business trips.

      I love that line from "Red Wind"--and it's proof that sometimes, despite Dutch Leonard's advice, it IS good to start a story with the weather.

      Thanks for stopping here at SleuthSayers, and for your comment!

      Delete
  12. I’m a Virgin Islander (St. Thomas🇻🇮) who’s lived in North Carolina for the past few years. The vast majority of my stories take place on St. Thomas, with characters who reflect the personalities I grew up with and played with and taught. I like to say I’m not fluent in “North Carolina” yet. The few stories I’ve written that take place here are still linked to the island somehow. Cold weather? Nah. You won’t find that from me—or eventually, if I do include it, you’d better believe my characters will enjoy it as little as I do! (Ashley Bernier)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ashley! Interesting that the NC stories you write are still connected to the islands!--but that makes sense. There's just a comfort level that always goes along with writing "what you know."

      How would I go about finding some of your St. Thomas stories?

      Delete
    2. Yes! I had cousins who used to live there! Never been there myself!

      Delete
  13. Much of my fiction takes place in some version of Kansas where I've lived all my life! I can deal with the cold and snow but I much prefer being at home under the covers on snowy days! Keep the good words coming, John!

    ReplyDelete

Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>