23 February 2012
In my original writing group, our members consisted mostly of beginners. We arranged to meet once a week on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss or current work. The feedback grew better with each meeting and I value the imput of those other writers struggling to find what works and doesn't in the publishing world. I don't remember whose idea it was to give ourselves a name, but somehow we decided on Tuesday Knight Writers.
Whether we considered ourselves a knightly realm of writers or simply thought we were being cute for making a play on the word "night" since we met in the evenings or both. I do know that as Texans, we almost always have to repeat our occupation to strangers that aren't from this area of the world. Often accents are misunderstood.
"Do you mean like a horse rider?" a lady asked me when we sat next to each other on a plane to Phoenix.
I remember smiling and being entranced as she knitted something delicate in a deliciously soft baby blue yarn. It wasn't her artistry I considered when I replied, "No, I mean like a mystery writer."
"Oh," she sat and started another row.
I waited a few seconds and asked the question dancing in my mind like sudden water sprinklers turning on as you walk across a lawn. My words tumbled out quickly, almost tripping over each other in my excitement of finding the answer since she'd first withdrawn her work-in-progress. I took a breath and blurted, "How'd you get those needles onto the plane?"
She stopped knitting and looked at me a bit puzzled.
"Couldn't those sharp ended knitting needles be considered a weapon?"
She shrugged. "I suppose so. Nobody said anything when they checked my carry on."
Her answer fed my mind with ideas, spilling over each other like the twisted loops she was making with the yarn, stirring up a plot for a short story I was already creating in my mind.
What sort of items are considered weapons in our modern times? A quick look at what is now vetoed from carry-on luggage provides a clue to some that are unusual to most of us.
One of the best weapons in a mystery – in my opinion– was the one used in "Lamb to the Slaughter", originally a short story by Roald Dahl. The story later appeared as the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock television episode.
I read that Dahl enjoyed horror and black comedy and it influenced his fiction writing. His writing certainly has influenced mine. Dahl thought outside the box when it came to weapons. I bet someone paid him a lot more than a penny for some of those thoughts.
09 February 2012
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
been up to the interpreter, but what is going on right under our noses isn’t always so easy to detect.
yourself a favor and find a kid who owns a copy, or go to a bookstore or library and find one to skim through. Only you won’t skim through. They are quite intoxicating. All those hidden- in- plain-sight things make a mind that enjoys mysteries wander. Considering Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” suggests there is much to be discovered right under our noses.
His modus operandi was to bind, torture, and kill and rendered his nickname as the BTK Killer. Rader was viewed by many as a normal neighbor who ranted about a few things, but who didn’t?
catcher. He had spent four years in the United States Air Force. He was a member of a church and elected president of the Congregation Council, a Cub Scout leader, father of two and married to his wife for 34 years before his arrest.
Right under our noses and yet he murdered ten people before he was discovered.
to know the profile of the perpetrator. In real life, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why shocked neighbors living next door to a killer for decades are always remarking to the press, “He seemed like such a nice guy. I had no idea he could do such a thing.”
his eventual capture.
Luck sometimes plays a big hand in the apprehension and in those escaping becoming a victim. The
BTK killer had planned to strike again and actually stalked a woman and laid wait for her in her home for hours while she visited with friends. Angered when she didn’t return home on time, he left frustrated. Being with friends and staying late saved the woman’s life.
26 January 2012
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first. I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline.
Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.
12 January 2012
If a person could be described by his collection of reading material, I could be on a serious list or even verified as threat to national security due to the trips to websites concerning methods of criminal activity and how they could be apprehended.
Remember when someone in the Casey Anthony household had searched for information on chloroform on the Internet? I'm not claiming it was or was not an innocent search, but writers delve into that territory all the time. It doesn't make us purchase such items or use them, but the information could color our profiles in a not so nice shade of suspectability.
Most of us have a public profile these days. It lurks on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Classmates.com not to mention all those places we make purchases online. Oh yes, we have a customer profile there, too.
Hopefully, none of the readership here have a police profile. Still, we need to be aware if the amount of information others can easily obtain about us in 2012. Keeping our privacy intact has never been more difficult than in the Age of Information.
I own the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle concerning Sherlock Holmes. I have a copy of Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs. The serial killer profiling expert, John Douglas, has written many nonfiction books in his work for the FBI. I own several although it terrifies me to know these are true accounts.
I treasure the cosies written by Barbara Burnett Smith and Agatha Christie as much as the hard-boiled exploits of characters created by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. If a profiler attempted to evaluate my behavioral tendencies by what I read, would I be in trouble?
Like many readers, I am a fan of mysteries whether they are short stories, novel length or true crime exposes. My book shelves contain a bevy of titles from well-known and not-so-well-known authors.
Even Sherlock Holmes may be shaken by a few of our reading choices. Do our e-readers prove we are morbid if we relish Edgar Allen Poe? Easily amused by chicklit? Love to scare ourselves senseless with Dean Koontz?
Do we buy into the profiler's listings for a criminal? Absolutely. Why? Because it is a proven fact that they are usually right on the money.
This is why the television programs, "Psych" and "The Mentalist" are so popular. Like in a Sherlockian tale, the evidence is there, but most of us don't notice what's in front of our face. We aren't observant. We need a good detective to point out the facts.
As the profiler lists the quirks of a serial killer, aren't we a bit slapped in the face to realize the man being led away in handcuffs wasn't really the nice, old guy who took care of his mother as much as the weird guy who had never had a real girlfriend and still lived with his mother.
If we used better observation skills, we'd discover the true murderer in a detective novel before the author intended and we just might live in a safer world.
29 December 2011
A friend who knows I'm a lover of great mysteries discovered a new-to-me novel and sent it for a non-holiday gift. The copy of David Morrell's THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS is a delight as only the Rambo creator could write, but also interesting is the tidbit attributed to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Espionage. It seems the explanation of the rose representing the spy profession links back to Greek mythology when the god of love offered a bribe of a rose to the god of silence in promise of keeping confidential overheard sins of other gods.
15 December 2011
I'm wrapping gifts picked out for each person on my own list without checking to see if they were naughty or nice.
I'm listening to the GLEE Christmas CD and loving the idea, if not the reality of a Norman Rockwell gathering to look forward to this season.
I'm counting my blessings and having one heck of a time trying to think of a crime or imagine a criminal mind doing heinous things in the midst of feeling so blessed.
I know this a rampant time of year for burglars, grinches and car jackers to strike unexpected into our lives. I know that greed and commercialism is making louder statements in the world every day. I know that sometimes I am a bit naive about how the real world acts.
Last spring I was taken to task on Facebook when I said I wished the good guys could win on "Survivor." One of my friends scolded me online about it being a "game." A game, yes. I have to agree. I was gently reminded that when Colby did the right thing (in my mind), he lost the game and the million dollar prize. Last season I was once again disappointed and did not watch this season though I'd been a loyal viewer since the first episode.
This is my problem: I'm trying to be a nice girl in a naughty world. I try to play fair and then sneak off and write stories others may consider disturbing. Because I'm having fun playing both naughty and nice, do I need to see a therapist?
That's an interesting question I pose to myself often in the middle of writing a not-so-nice character. I feel a lot like Dexter. We share trying to live two highly different sides of our personalities in one lifetime. I think my "other life" as a writer isn't as dark as Dexter's as a detective/serial killer, but wouldn't he justify his choices, too? He's ridding the world of really, really bad people.
Do we all here share a naughty side? Do you enjoy the same sickness of loving to read about serial killers, tracking murderers and solving atrocious crimes we dare not undertake ourselves though we just may be able to get away with it if we tried?
Well, then, sit down. Have a cookie and I'll pour you a cup of coffee. We're going to be great pals. Wait until you hear what I'm planning to write next year. It's deliciously awful! I think you just may like the taste of a 2012 murder or two. I plan to write them more often than I bake Grandma's cookies.
17 November 2011
My friend, Travis Erwin, had his first-ever book signing this past weekend. The novel, The Feedstore Chronicles, is not the type of fiction he usually writes, but is a funny, can't-put-it-down, quick read. Travis describes himself as "a native Texan, a humorist, a devout carnivore unafraid to write or read a good love story."
A stereotypical-looking big ol' boy (he's past six feet tall) and refuses to eat vegetables (unless you count fried okra), Travis is a real friend when you need one. Instead of sitting in front of a computer, he looks like all he does is watch football (he is a Saints fan!). He has a beautiful wife, two rambunctious, good-looking sons and is a true enigma to me as he usually writes women's fiction.
Now if that last bit didn't stop you in your tracks, not much will. This is what I find interesting in what we're told as writers particularly about what will and what won't sell in the mystery market. When I began writing in earnest, writer's conference after writer's conference speakers directed us not to write serial killer stories as they wouldn't sell since the market was swollen with those kind of submissions. Well, serial killer stories continued to sell and show up on the bookstands, in the movies and on television on a regular basis.
We were told our characters had to be believable. A protagonist or even a sidekick that fell into the description of Travis Erwin would not be believeable to most editors. Heck, if I didn't know him so well, I'd agree.
My take on all this is that it is good writing that sells. If the story idea seems overdone -- as in the case of yet another story about teenagers and vampires -- well, that depends on the author drawing the readership in with a good tale.
Travis said his story is based on compilations of some people he'd met through the years and experiences that actually happened when he worked as a teenager in a feedstore. I think most writers use their personal history to create characters that ring true to the reading public. If we read about a detective who shares some of our own qualities, quirks or behavios, then the story is more plausible. I also enjoy when the hero isn't quite as heroic or "proper."
When Nero Wolfe consumes breakfast in bed while wearing silk pajamas, I know he understands the fine art of dining that most rushing about in the Fast Food World has never experienced. Dining with nero Wolfe is recalling a time when everything wasn't quite so hurried and long before grunge became commonplace in eateries. Unfortunately, "dressing for dinner" is regulated for a few times during the year in my own life, so I appreciate it when a writer arranges such an occasion in his own stories.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not all fussy all the time with my characters either. Sometimes the best fun is when characters do something that wouldn't pass muster with the politically correct crowd. There's something about a tough guy in detective novels that lures me into spending time with them. I adore Mike Hammer's hardboilded persona, even when he flies into a rage. Maybe it's because no matter how much we have benefited from the feminist movement in the workplace, a girl likes to know a man would and could protect her if needed. This doesn't mean I'm not above wanting the heroine to be able to take care of herself aka Stephanie Plum or Kinsey Millhone. I don't know many who like a wimpy woman these days in literature -- or in person. I want my heroine to be able to handle the bad guys all on her own and if she saves someone else while doing it, that's even better.
Sometimes I like to settle back with a good story that will make me laugh out loud. The Feedstore Chronicles fits into this category. Who doesn't need to lean back, kick off their shoes and just enjoy a fun story once in awhile? Thanks Travis for allowing me to do just that yesterday. You made me blush just a little, and that's probably a good thing, too.
03 November 2011
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
One of my longtime writer friends is compiling information for an article about one of my former employers –and maybe unbeknownst to my boss– also one of my best writing mentors though the title was never official.
As editor of the "Book Page" where my book reviews ran every Sunday for several years, Mrs. Tripp may not have known how much in awe I was and still am of her accomplishments.
The writer friend, Bernice Simpson, asked my initial reaction to meeting my editor in person. The memory made me smile. Mary Kate Tripp looked like she ought to be harsh. She looked like a tough reporter. She looked exactly like I expected her to be. Picture Katherine Hepburn and you picture Mary Kate Tripp – all the sass, spitfire and spunk rolled up in a no-nonsense attidtude about her work.
Mrs. Tripp conquered the Old Boy's Club of the newsroom decades ago when women weren't allowed to wear slacks in public much less be a spitfire of a reporter. Women were like children and meant to be seen and not heard. If you went by the photo accompanying her column, you would suspect she was a stern woman who probably never laughed. Looks can be deceiving. Sometimes.
My initial meeting with Mary Kate Tripp happened when I wanted to write a book review of Jan Grape's mystery novel, AUSTIN CITY BLUE. I had never attempted to write a book review to be published, but when I met Jan at a writer's workshop, I knew I wanted to give it a try. When I spoke on the phone to Mrs. Tripp, she gave me the go-ahead to write the review on spec. For the non-writer, that simply means if they don't like it, it won't see print and you won't get paid no matter how much time you spent doing the research and writing the piece. It's just the way of the publishing world. After giving me the guidelines, Mrs. Tripp instructed she wanted me to bring a hard copy of the review to her home so she could meet me.
When she opened the door, I felt like Mary Richards (the main character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") meeting crusty Lou Grant for the first time. I swallowed hard and introduced myself while Mrs. Tripp gave me the "once over." I couldn't tell what sort of impression I made on her, but I desperately wanted to do this paricular book review and be published in the newspaper. To be honest, I wanted more than that: I wanted to be Mary Kate Tripp or at least inherit her job when she retired.
I have no idea how old she was then or now, but her hair is still white and worn in an unswept hairdo, both professional and intimidating simultaneously. The woman had won about every award a reporter could win and had interviewed everyone from celebrities to those in politics to ordinary people making a difference in the world through their books. She'd helped many local authors on their way to great careers.
The woman was sharp and once I got to know her, hid a delicious sense of humor beneath that steel glint expression in her eyes. At that first meeting, she told me she wanted to know about me. I was surprised. I assumed my writing would be all that mattered. I had given her my postal box address to send my check. Instead of asking where I resided, she inquired, "Where do you vote?" Inwardly, I smiled at her cleverness, but outside I tried to to keep my expression stoic. I was trying to appear more experienced and professional I suppose, but she probably saw right through me. (I've been told I must be lucky in love because I don't have a decent poker face to win at cards at all.)
My writing style ended up being my saving grace as she bought the review, then led me to her office in the back of the house and told me to pick out whatever books I'd like to review for the next Sunday's edition. In that moment, I realized I was hired for more than one gig. I stayed with the newspaper until it was sold to out-of-state owners who decided to discontinue the Book Page. I did write a few book reviews for the paper when one of my friends had a new book released, but it wasn't as much fun as when I worked for Mary Kate Tripp.
The best memory of working for her came one day after I'd selected a stack of books for the next week and Mrs. Tripp invited me "to sit and visit for a bit." I listened as she told me stories about when she'd first graduated from college and found no jobs available to her. She took a position for a rancher and his wife tutoring their children and becoming their nanny on the side. This woman who'd seemed so hard to crack admitted she often rode a horse to a spot where she could be alone and sneak a cigarette. The rancher didn't approve of women smoking, she told me. I didn't get the impression she enjoyed teaching children, but times were hard and she needed work. Then she grinned and said, "But his wife sure was a good cook." Mrs. Tripp eventually went to work for the newspaper and rose up through the ranks, keeping a marriage going along with a job back when women didn't do such things after marrying. Mary Kate Tripp is one heck of a woman, one great writer and a terrific mentor and role model for me. She inspired me to become a mentor to an aspiring writer a couple of years ago. (Yes, I had a full school year– that's nine months of Summer – with mystery writer, Summer G. Baker. Keep a lookout for that name!)
Do you have a mentor in your life and are you one to someone? It's really a wonderful experience and I highly recommend mentorship from both sides of the equation.
22 September 2011
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
This is my first post for SleuthSayers. For the past four and half years, I've had a posting at Criminal Brief on Thursdays. Being their Femme Fatale was fun and yes, I have also been known as Thursday's Child with far to go. As a Sleuthsayer, I am eager to start anew with a clean slate. Because this blog is comprised of experienced bloggers, we might be considered "new", but certainly not ingenues. That is both good and bad.
The good is though we enter this endeavor knowing not everyone is going to like every column, from what we've learned over the years, the odds are the readership will enjoy enough of what's here to return soon and often. We appreciate and need your feedback to find out what you'd like to see on this blog.
The bad news is -- wait! There is no bad news. We're ready to explore crime writing and getting to know mystery writers and hear what the mystery readers want.
Writers are like a combination between a magician and serial killer: we always have something new up our sleeve, but often the thoughts lurking deep in our mind aren't always nice and pretty, yet sometimes those are the most interesting.
I suppose I should introduce myself. I am a lover of the short story. My first love is mystery and I enjoy plotting crimes. I'd probably be a decent enough criminal except I'm too chicken to do the time if I got caught. Better for me to write my stories and stay scared straight.
As a fiction writer, it seems I sell a lot of nonfiction. I dabble in other realms of the writing world and have succumbed to poetry, screenplays and scripting a fashion show for the Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. I've been a book reviewer, an office manager and spent time as an actual hired killer when I worked as an exterminator. I really do know how to get rid of the bodies.
I love writing, but probably do the work as much for getting speaking gigs as book sales. I love the stage and yes, I admit, applause. Writers usually sit in front of a computer and rarely get applause. In my opinion, we all need more applause in our life. So, right now, I am applauding you for having read something today just for fun and I hope that includes this blog. Go ahead and blush as I am now giving you a standing ovation. You're really quite wonderful and it's fine with me if you start feeling the same about me, too.
I'll be back here on alternate Thursdays. I hope you will, too. I have plans for you.