Showing posts with label Historical Mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Historical Mystery. Show all posts

28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?

by Melodie Campbell

Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

13 June 2013

An Interview with Hist-Myst Author Ruth Downie

by Brian Thornton

Ruth Downie is the author of five historical mysteries set in ancient Roman-occupied Britain. Her protagonist Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Gaul-born Roman citizen serving in Britain as an army doctor. In the first book he saves the life of a dying slave- a strong-willed Briton named Tilla, who becomes Ruso's "housekeeper," and eventually his wife. Together the pair find themselves plunged into a series of awkward situations (with Tilla usually doing the plunging!) invariably resulting in Ruso's reluctant investigation of some sort of ill-concealed malfeasance.
 

Ruth, thanks very much for taking the time to answer some questions about yourself and your work. First: please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I worked as a secretary/administrator after University, and made a mental escape into creative writing as an adult. This started with short stories, and I was hugely encouraged by being runner-up in a “Start a Novel” competition for a national newspaper (The Daily Mail) and by winning the Fay Weldon section of the BBC’s “End of Story” competition. ‘Medicus’ started as three chapters for another “start a novel” competition run by the Historical Novel Society, (to whom I’m hugely grateful). There are now five novels in the series, and a sixth should be published in the summer of 2014. Who’d have thought it?!

Meanwhile I’m delighted to have returned to live in the West Country after many years’ absence. I have a husband, two grown-up sons and a cat, and am never happier than when on an archaeological dig in the sunshine.
How did you come to being a writer?
My degree was in English literature, but frankly that put me off - when you spend three years reading literary masters, anything you might produce yourself looks feeble in comparison. It was only years later when I had small children at home and was studying for an accountancy exam in the evenings that I decided I needed to loosen my brain up, and tentatively ventured into a Creative Writing class.

So why write historical mystery? And why a character from Britain's distant past? Especially someone so "non-Briton" as Gaius Petreius Ruso?
I never realised how interesting ancient history was until we went on a family visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Rather late, it dawned on me that the past was populated by real people, and that they had been here. When we learned in a museum that, “Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but were allowed to have relationships with local women”, I began to wonder what must have happened to those women. So initially I was fascinated by the mystery of all those lost stories: the murders came later.  
As for Ruso: I wanted a foreigner’s take on the Britons, and I liked the tension of that foreigner being part of a long-term occupying force. It was interesting to have Britannia as what we’d now think of as a “developing country” – especially as plenty of the Britons were not at all interested in development, and would rather have been left alone.
The character of Tilla is dynamically drawn, possessed of a unique voice, and plays an important role in each of the books in this series. Did you envision writing something wherein a "female counterpart" would play such a large role when you first started writing about Ruso and his world, or did Tilla "intrude" on your original plans?
Tilla was definitely there from the start: she’s the “local woman” who has a thing or two to teach the know-it-all Romans.
In my limited experience with writing and publishing mystery-themed historical fiction I've found the research itself to be something of a necessary quagmire. On the one hand it's a requirement (albeit an enjoyable one) if you wish to have the ring of authenticity to your work. On the other hand, it's possible to go too far, to place too much emphasis on it, to include so much historical description that it bogs down the narrative. You seem to have a terrific handle on this, including enough historical detail to give your narrative the proper "feel" for the period involved, without overdoing it. How do you tackle the question of research: how much to do, how much to include? And do you continue to research once you've begun your actual drafting of the novel?
To be honest I’ve never really got the research under control. I’d happily read books, wander round
sites and museums, and trawl around the Internet all day every day. (Who wouldn’t?) I’ve also done a lot of archaeological digging on a Roman villa site and a certain amount of hanging around re-enactors and wearing mock Roman clothes, which is great for getting the ‘feel’ of the past.  It’s quite a struggle to set all this aside and get on with putting the words in order, and I’m very easily distracted back into research if something crops up that I’m not sure about.

As a reader, however, I’m very impatient. I want to know what happens next. I’m not interested in struggling through the undigested fruits of the author’s research - although if I ever find a way to fit a clue into the patterns on Romano-British box flue tiles, they’ll turn up somewhere in a plot.  I’m aware of the advice that everything should be relevant to the story, although I fear I don’t always abide by it.  Sometimes I can’t resist slipping in an entertaining fact. SEMPER FIDELIS has the “epispasm,” the procedure on offer in the ancient world for any gentleman brave enough to want to disguise his circumcision. I suspect that my subconscious may have arranged part of the plot specially to get that in…
In your nonfiction asides outside the narrative of you novels you do a nice job of breaking down what stems from fact and what is pure invention within your work. Do you find fans appreciative of that?
I’m glad you asked that! I’ve often wondered whether it was a good idea or not, because people seldom comment on it. However - I’m writing this from Crimefest, (http://www.crimefest.com) so yesterday I took advantage of being on a discussion panel to ask the audience what they thought. It turns out that most people think it’s a good idea. Several said they glance through the notes before they read a book, which I confess I do, too. And as my fellow-panellist Jane Finnis (http://www.janefinnis.com) pointed out, ‘nobody has to read it if they don’t want to.’
Speaking of "fans," every writer of historical fiction who stays in the game long enough eventually has at least one encounter with someone who approaches them either in person or via email, etc., and insists they got this or that historical detail "wrong." Do you find this a challenge? How do you address this sort of thing?

I’m not a historian, but mercifully this doesn’t happen as often as it did in my nightmares after I found out the first novel was going to be published. I’m fine with it if people contact me personally – sometimes it gives me a chance to explain. (I really MUST check future US editions to make sure the word ‘corn’ is translated into ‘wheat’ because it’s very distracting for the discerning American reader to find the Romano-Britons apparently growing what we call sweetcorn, or maize.)

At other times, although it’s always a blow to the pride to realise you’ve got something very publicly wrong, it’s useful to know for next time and I’m glad people are interested enough to care. What I do struggle with is the very occasional internet reviewer who complains about an error that isn’t an error at all. I don’t reply to reviews but it does bother me that someone else might read that, assume the critic is correct and be put off trying the book.

Speaking of the writing, can you briefly walk us through your process?
Well I’ll try, but only because it will serve as a warning to others. On a good day I wake up with an idea about something I’ve been wrestling with the day before, and scribble it down in the bedside notebook – I try to write a page or two about something every morning, even if it’s only the weather. Then I type it up later and with luck, I get sufficiently involved in it to lose track of time. On a bad day I footle about checking emails for far too long, waste the most productive part of the day, and end up with nothing except a feeling of guilt.

A good day will see 1000 words added to the count. A nearly-at-the-deadline day might even see 3000 words, but not necessarily the right ones.  I’ve now bought “Freedom” software in an attempt to keep myself away from the Internet. And yes, I do know how feeble that sounds!

The best part of the process is re-writing, when the editor has pointed out what doesn’t work and hopefully what does, and you have a chance to try and fix it.

Setting sure seems to play a vital role in your work. So far in your series you've resisted setting any of your books in the same place twice, featuring locations such as Deva (Chester), Londinium (London), Eburacum (York), and the area north of Hadrian's Wall in lowland Scotland and in southern Gaul (France). Any chance of a return to one or any of these places? Also, any chance that Ruso and Tilla will eventually wind up in Aquae Sulis (Bath), perhaps to take the waters, only to find....?
Book Six, which isn’t due out until August 2014, will be back in the Hadrian’s Wall region, because
historically I’ve reached the years when the wall was built. But instead of Corbridge, we’ll be thirty miles away in the central region, nearer to Vindolanda and up in the hills.
As for Aquae Sulis - Book Two was very nearly set there. I’d bought all the research books and been for the field trip – but told nobody else - when I discovered Kelli Stanley’s website and found that she was about to send her own Roman medic there in her next book. There’s only a limited amount of source material to work with and it would have been silly to try and draw from the same well, so I fear Ruso won’t be taking the waters after all!
Which authors, regardless of genre categorization, do you consider your primary influences as an author? And are there authors whose work you enjoy, but don't consider influences?
That’s tricky, because I suspect in some way we’re influenced by everything we read. (*Note to self: spend less time messing about on the Internet, LOL*) Discovering Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels gave me the confidence to carry on writing Roman-era fiction with modern dialogue and humour – something I wasn’t sure was ‘allowed’ when I started doing it. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian novels, because Renko is such a superb lead character. CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series is a must-read, and anything by Elmore Leonard is an example of how to tell a fine story with a few words.
Thanks so much for taking the time to be interviewed! As a sign-off, please tell us what you're reading right now?
I’ve just finished ‘Pigs in Clover’ by Simon Dawson – the story of a couple who abandoned their jobs in London to live on a smallholding. It’s a very honest, moving and funny account, especially as I’ve both met and eaten some of the livestock Simon mentions.
Next up: Robert Goddard’s “The Ways of the World” – a proof copy for review. I’m looking forward to being taken to Paris in 1919.


 

21 March 2013

Setting as Character

by Brian Thornton

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!