Showing posts with label mystery writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mystery writing. Show all posts

10 November 2018

The Journalist Detective

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Maybe I should have known something was waiting for me when I was inspired to wear a button-down shirt and suspenders into my office. I was having writer’s block on my novel and a bad feeling when I took a pass over to the state police website in search of a story. Kassirer’s car had been found abandoned in the parking lot next to the Troop-C police barracks in the West End of Oneonta, five days after he was last seen by his family as he left his father’s funeral in Irondequoit, three days after he’d been reported missing by his employer, a drug rehab center in Brattleboro, Vermont, four days after he’d texted them to let them know he would be in the next day.

A bad feeling, sure, but I had to know where it was going to lead. I went into full detective mode. I called the Irondquoit police, who told me that he had last been seen checking out of a Binghamton hotel on the morning of Oct. 23, and that the last cell phone ping came from Oneonta, not far from where his car was located, at just before 4:30 a.m.

Meaning he checked out of his hotel at 3:30 a.m. The mystery deepened.
*
Out of curiosity, I did a Google Maps search of the area where the cell phone ping had been picked up. I saw a small path that lead into the ravine, near where his car was found. My heart sank. That’s where they’ll find him, I thought. I tried to ignore the feeling. Friends and family pleaded on Facebook for him to come home. That night, Ian and I drove out to Binghamton to buy Halloween supplies. I wondered if he’d gone into the nearby river or wandered into the woods. He wouldn’t be the first one. I lamented his disappearance and hoped he was okay.
*
The next day, a loose-lipped policeman in Massachusetts told me that a friend had picked up a ping from his cell phone in Rochester later that evening, meaning he got nearly 200 miles away from where his car was found, back towards where he had been. The police had searched his apartment and all they found in his room was a pile of blankets where a bed should be. His roommate was out of town, but someone was feeding the cat.

We went to press that night with no sign of him. I went to bed that night hoping that he would turn up in a hospital or rehab center, a man who just needed to get away from it all for a few days. But I’ve been at this business long enough to know that it’s so rarely the case.
*
My boss jokes, darkly, about my uncanny ability to read between the lines of press releases, an understanding of crime and human behavior honed from an adulthood of reading and writing mysteries.  On Wednesday, as I was getting ready for the Halloween parade, I got a call from Aga that his body had been located in “heavy brush” down the hill behind where he had parked.

Just as I had suspected.

But how did he get there? And why? I’ve written here before that being a journalist has all the questions of a private detective, with none of the release that come with the solving of a case. I can make the calls, but in the end, I have to just wait for the phone to ring and write down what is said on the other end of the line.

The autopsy proved inconclusive, but that the death was not being ruled “suspicious.” That means they don’t think he was murdered and there were no indications of suicide. Toxicology reports and additional testing take time.

Maybe I’ll have an answer for you next month.

Or maybe another case.

02 January 2018

Writer’s Resolutions 2018 – Fragile: Do Not Break

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since it’s the day after the New Year, I thought I’d come up with some writer’s resolutions. Not that I feel I need any as I’m so perfect – just ask my wife. But what the hell?


My prose will not be written in passive voice. I will not be plagued by this bad writing habit. This is one resolution that will definitely be kept.

And I’ll try to use “but” and “and” and “just” just a little bit less. But I like using them and they make me feel like the narrator is a real person talking like a real person does. Really.

Take criticism better: My wife, Amy, is my number one beta reader. And she’s a damn good critic and editor, but sometimes I just don’t like hearing what she has to say. Not that she’s wrong, just that she likes to make more work for me. I like to think everything I write is straight from the muse to the page. But she feels like she has to get between the muse and me. Most of the time, about 2/3 to 3/4, I take her advice, grumbling all the way. But in the end, I think the work is better for it.

Try not to be jealous of others’ successes: I’m always happy to see other people have success, but there’s always that tinge of envy. So I’ll try to squash the tinge and complain less. As others have pointed out, there’s always someone looking at you (me) wishing they had what I had. But I guess that’s the human condition.

Get up from the desk more often: Amy gave me a Fitbit, and it’s pretty-pretty cool. It buzzes to yell at me and tells me to get up and walk around, which I do just so it will stop shouting at me. And I do walk the dogs and other things, but sometimes when you’re in the zone you just want to keep writing. But it bugs me to get off my ass and walk around…so I do. Just to shut it up.


Do less Facebooking: Oh, yeah, that’s gonna happen. FB is my watercooler. Since I work at home and we live in the middle of nowhere (not quite as nowhere as the abandoned missile silo that I tried to talk Amy into, but that’s another story) it’s good to have a place to connect with people. It gives me a place to see what others are up to and thinking. Chat and feel like I have friends. Well, I could stand less posts about politics and more cute cat videos.

Stop calling surfing the net research: I love surfing the net. I love doing research. Sometimes when I’m surfing the net, looking up Indian head test patterns and how to murder someone and get away with it, I can talk myself into thinking I’m doing research. Or like when I was writing my 1940s homefront mystery and I spent hours just looking up big band leaders and listening to their songs on YouTube. Y’know, research, even though I only needed one song and already had picked one.

Spend less time on e-mails: I do tend to spend a lot of time on e-mails, reading them, responding to them, crafting them. It’s kind of like the Facebook thing, keeps me in touch with the outside world. Our phone hardly rings anymore. Uh, Take 2: Our phone rings many times a day…but it’s almost never from people we know. One telemarketer after another. So we don’t even bother to answer anymore, but we do feel we should keep the landline. Mostly I connect with people via e-mail or another type of electronic communication. But I’m not big on texting…yet. Still, every once in a while it’s nice to actually hear someone’s voice. But not too often!

Get back to the novel that’s been dangling for a couple of years now…and rewriting the first novel that was accepted by a publisher: I have a novel that I like quite a bit that’s about half-finished but for various reasons has been languishing. And I really want to get back to it, but something always seems to come up that takes priority. And I also want to rework somewhat the first novel that a publisher picked up. I may have mentioned this before, but the first novel I completed was accepted for publication at a major house. It was a satire on a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. Eventually, the whole editorial staff at that publisher was swept out and, as a new broom sweeps clean, my book was swept out with them. And since the humor was topical it was pretty dated even after only a couple of years so it couldn’t really go to another publisher. The lesson: don’t write things that are so topical that their shelf life is shorter than yogurt left on the counter on a steaming, hot day. Remember what George S. Kaufman said, satire is what closes Saturday night. Story of my life. But I’ve learned a lesson – No Topical Humor.


Be kind to the computer: Like Amy says there are no dumb computers, only dumb humans. But I beg to differ. It’s usually the computer that makes the mistake – not me…

Write 10000 5000 2000 100 words a day. This one’s self-explanatory.

Well, there you have it. Gotta run, gotta hit Facebook. Gotta start breaking those resolutions. It wouldn’t do to have any of them unbroken after the third of January, would it?

What are your resolutions? And which ones do you plan to break first?


Happy New Year to Everyone! Now get busy breaking those resolutions.



***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



25 November 2016

Guest Post: Tara Laskowski on Writing Crime Fiction (Without Being a Writer of Crime Fiction)

Tara Laskowski
Today, I'm pleased to welcome a very special guest: my wife, Tara Laskowski! Tara is the author of two collections of short fiction, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders, and since 2010, she's edited SmokeLong Quarterly, one of the leading flash fiction journals in the business. As she'll explain, while much of her success has been in more literary circles (including the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International), she's also published short stories in the anthology The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology and in both Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; in fact, she was the sole American author in EQMM's recent All Nations Issue, celebrating the magazine's work with writers around the globe. While many of our SleuthSayers have written for non-mystery magazines and are planning to share stories about that crossover, today Tara talks a little about moving in the other direction and the challenges and pleasures she's found in the process. Hope you'll enjoy! — Art Taylor

Writing Crime Fiction
(Without Being a Writer of Crime Fiction)
By Tara Laskowski

Earlier this year, I tried for the first time to write an actual mystery story.

While I’ve had a few stories published in crime magazines and anthologies, they were never stories I had intentionally written for those audiences. I am, for the most part, considered a literary writer, and most of the publications I have on my resume are in literary and general fiction journals, books, and magazines. My stories tend to hover on the themes of family, friendships, and women's issues. I write and edit flash fiction, which is often experimental and focused on language and rhythm over plot—closer to poetry in some ways.

But I also love the dark side. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators and Stephen King's novels and stories. I was born on Halloween and am obsessed with horror movies. I love a good scare, a good creep-out, a wicked villain.

So my stories usually have some of that crime, noir, supernatural element to them—although those darker elements usually creep in after the fact. That is, I don’t intend to write a crime story—and most of the time my crime stories hover in the gray areas between genres, part domestic drama, part murder mystery, part ghost story.

So intentionally sitting down to write a traditional mystery story? The thought kind of gave me hives. Plot and all its intricacies do not come easily to me, and I struggled with how to drop clues and red herrings in ways that weren't completely obvious and stupid, all while trying to move the story forward, make sure the characters were interesting, and not drive myself completely batty in the process.

(Side note: I have profound respect for Sophie Hannah in her plotting of the new Hercule Poirot mysteries. I have no idea how she does it. I cannot even keep a 25-page story straight, let alone a massive novel. Standing ovation, Ms. Hannah. Standing ovation.)

It is a completely different way to write a story. Usually when I am working on something new, it starts with a character and a moment and unfolds from there. I discover what the story is about as I’m writing it, and the language and descriptions carry it forward. But in this case, I started with a scenario and had to build out the plot. I had a character named Nancy Drew who hated the fact that she was named that and who was on a date with a man who thought it was funny to bring her to a murder mystery dinner. And of course, I knew that in the middle of the dinner, someone at her table would have to go missing. But who? And what happened to that person? And how would she solve it? And what would happen with her and her boyfriend? Would this mystery bring them together, or pull them apart for good?

All these questions were swirling around in my brain, and I felt that I had to know what was going to happen before I started writing the story. I sketched an entire outline. Then deleted it. Then reworked it. Then put it aside. Then tried again.

Want to know how long it took me to finish the story after I got the initial idea? Ready?

Ten years.

Nope. Not kidding. Ten years.

Clearly those “putting aside” moments were long ones—in some cases, years—but from initial idea to completed, submitted story draft, it was almost ten years in the making.

The good news: the story recently was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, so you’ll be able to find out what happens to Nancy soon—sooner than it took me to figure out what happened to her, anyway.

My point in all this is that mystery fiction does not come easy to me. I love writing it, and I especially love reading it, but I don’t naturally think that way and it’s been interesting to focus my efforts in that direction. For one, the mystery community is extremely generous and welcoming. Despite all the folks killed off in the pages of their books, crime writers are quite lovely and kind in real life.

Plus, there are great reasons to expand your style and topics. I feel like the stories I publish in crime and mystery publications are more widely read than the ones I've published in before. Or, at least, I get a different audience than what I normally would get. Exposure to new readers is always good—and if a writer can expand outside her normal genre she might find new fans and bigger book sales. When I publish in a lit journal, the folks who I hear from who read it are all people I know. But when I publish in a mystery magazine, I will hear from readers I don't know at all—and that's always a treat.

The other perk for me is that crime pays! No, not that crime, silly. Crime fiction. Selling one story to a major mystery magazine gets me more money than the royalties from my books. Getting paid for your work is something that most literary writers aren't used to. We're used to giving away our work for free. We're used to running online journals as labors of love. The idea of paying artists for their work is refreshing to see in the mystery world, and an idea that I hope spreads and grows.

All that said, I love having the privilege of publishing widely, in both crime and mystery publications and in university journals, online and print literary magazines, and anthologies. No matter where my stories show up, they are always in good company with writers I admire and continue to learn from, and that's one of the best perks of being a writer in the first place.

Thank you to everyone for allowing me to contribute here! I recognize I am the other perspective in this special series, and I look forward to hearing what crime writers say about writing for non-mystery publications.


28 September 2015

Changes Are a Coming--Part 1

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

I seem to have a hard time coming up with articles lately. I  suspect I'm growing older and lazier. Been thete and said that. But don't think I'm senile yet. But aren't we the last to know? I've  been racking my brain pan all week and the only thing I thought of that remotely might be a reasonble subject was to write about the changes in publishing. There have been many changes since I first began trying to get a book published. Back in the early days we had to send our manuscripts to New York City by Pony Express.

 Oh, okay, I'm  not that old but some days it rather feels that way. However, we did have to send the mss in printed on white printer paper, double spaced, one inch margins all around.  we had to write a sparkling letter to an agent or an editor hoping our query caught their attention. Most agents and a few editors would read unsolicited manuscripts. You packaged everything all up and included a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope.) One of the best ways to keep your mss neat and make the return easier was to put it in a printer paper box, slide that into a very large mail envelope, being sure to include another SASE envelope with enough postage for the return.

I had an electric typewriter at the time and wasn't a very good or fast typist. I did have a friend or two who would type the mss for me but I couldn't ask them to do the work for free. I generally paid something. You also had to have more than one copy. What if your precious book got lost in the mail? So you went to a copy shop and ran off two extra copies. Fairly high price for such  and I certainly didn't  have much spare money in my purse. Then the postage itself wasn't cheap and you had to include enough in the SASE to get your copy back, all the time hoping the editor didn't mess up that copy so badly that you couldn't  send it out again immediately.

Every aspiring writer back then thought there was some big magic secret to getting published. I was at a writer's conference in Houston sponsored by a Houston University and a woman who was a big time editor for a major publishing house told us of talking to a writer's  group and someone asked why she wouldn't tell the secret of getting published. She told us how she made a big deal out of it. Saying we absolutely could not ever tell anyone the secret. She made sure all the doors to the room were closed and no one was lurking outside. Then she told us what she told that other group. When you put the postage on the envelope to mail the mss to NY. You must put the stamps on upside down. Everyone laughed but she told us over 50 percent of all mss that came in that summer had the stamps on upside down.

You also didn't  dare query more than one agent or editor at a time. They really frowned on such hubris. They could keep your mss for weeks or months only then, send you a form rejection slip. However, if they did like your book and had started the process of convincing the purchasing board and tried to offer you a contract only to discover you had just accepted a contract from one of their crosstown rivals. In which case, you're name would forever be mud with that editor and maybe with the rival editor. So you suffered and when you began getting rejection after rejection you realized you could paper the bathroom wall with rejections slips.

As we all know changes were coming and things were going to be easier.
Tune in next time for some wonderful remarks from my friend and fellow mystery writer, Noreen Ayers.

14 January 2014

What are the Odds?

by Terence Faherty

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the latest Batman cycle, Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Ohlman, tells a young policeman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "You're a detective now, son.  You're not allowed to believe in coincidence."

The same admonition might be made to every writer who undertakes a mystery story or book.  In fact, I've heard it paraphrased on Boucheron panels (the highest possible authority) and read it in how-to books.  Eliminate coincidence. 

The goal is understandable.  It's unsatisfying for the reader to plow through a mystery novel in the wake of the fearless detective only to have that detective solve the mystery because he happens to see a billboard that makes him think of something or bumps into a character who holds the vital clue.  A related and equally irritating device was a favorite of B-movie writers in old Hollywood and still pops up in the B movies direct descendant, television.  When all seems foggiest, the hero's sidekick will make an extraneous remark that gives the hero a much needed kick in the old mental pants.  You know this has happened when the hero says, "Say that again!"  The sidekick will then repeat the wrong part of what he or she just said to further prolong the "suspense."

But while the goal of eliminating coincidence is understandable, overemphasizing that goal  weakens the mystery's chances of being mistaken for serious literature.  Coincidences occur in real life, so eliminating them makes a mystery story less like real life and more like a puzzle. 

I collect real-life coincidences, which I find fascinating.  One of my favorites was passed on to me a few years ago by my wife, Jan.  She was attending a football game at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with old friends from her sorority pledge class none of whom had seen the others in twenty years.  During the first half, the woman on Jan's left (I'll call her
Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium
Lois) remarked that she was hoping to visit someone while she was in town, the pharmacist who had given her a part-time job when she was an undergraduate.  Later, the woman on Jan's right (I'll call her Mary) said that her son, a Purdue student, was attending the game and would stop by at halftime to be introduced.  Sure enough, at halftime Mary's son showed up.  He mentioned in passing that he had scored a great seat for the game, right next to an interesting old guy who had run a pharmacy in West Lafayette years before.  Right.   He was none other than Lois's old employer.  In a stadium that holds well over 60,000 souls, Mary's son just happened to be seated next to him.



History is, of course, full of coincidences.  Just last week, I ran into a beauty.  Or rather, a whole string of beauties.  The U.S.S. Ward, a destroyer, is generally credited with being the
The U.S.S. Ward
first American ship to engage the enemy in World War II.  Under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, the Ward attacked and sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly before the Japanese carrier planes arrived.  Destroyers are named after naval heroes.  So who was the original Ward?  He was James Warren Ward, the first naval officer killed in the Civil War.  That's right.  The first ship to engage the enemy in one long, bloody war was named after the first naval officer to die in another long, bloody war.  Not coincidental enough?  How's this? After serving under different commanders in different Pacific actions, the Ward met her fate off the Philippines when she was struck by a Japanese kamikaze.  That occurred on December 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Ward fired the starting gun for the whole Pacific campaign.  But wait, as the hucksters say
The last fight of the Ward
on television, there's more.  The kamikaze started uncontrollable fires on the ship, and the crew abandoned her.  Another destroyer, the U.S.S. O'Brien was called up to finish off the wreck.  The O'Brien was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, an American commander at the Battle of Machias, the first naval action of the American Revolution.  So the first ship to fire on the enemy in World War II, which was named for the first officer to die in the Civil War, was sunk by a ship named for the man who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War.  Holy synchronicity, Batman!  (The fact that I just paraphrased Burt Ward in a paragraph about the U.S.S. Ward is purely coincidental.)  Can I top that?  As a matter of fact, I can.  On December 7, 1944, the O'Brien was commanded by William Outerbridge, the same man who had commanded the Ward at Pearl Harbor three years earlier.  What are the odds?


Let's get back to mystery writing.  If coincidences are a part of life and eliminating them slavishly makes a book less real to life but using them to resolve a mystery plot is unsatisfying, what's the answer?  It is to use coincidence, if you've a mind to, at the beginning of the story, as the thing that sets the plot in motion.  It could be a chance remark that answers a long-unanswered question and so leads to murder.  Agatha Christie used that one.  It could be a scrap of old, foreign newspaper that happens to contain a story of vital interest to the person who happens to find it.  Dorothy Sayers used that one.  It could be the accidental coming together of old friends or enemies or comrades in arms in an unlikely place.  Los Angeles, say.  Raymond Chandler used that one.  All three of those writers had long and happy careers.  Not coincidentally.  

19 March 2013

Doyle When He Nodded

by Terence Faherty

First I'd like to echo Brian Thornton by thanking the other contributors to SleuthSayers for their warm welcome. I'd especially like to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to give this a try and Dale Andrews, who's alternating with me on Tuesdays, for the generous plug he gave me in his most recent post.

For my first post, I thought I'd write about one of my mystery writing heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and about one of his most interesting characteristics (from a writer's point of view): his carelessness.

Even casual readers of Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories have probably noted one egregious example of this carelessness, namely Watson's mobile bullet wound, which unaccountably shifts from his shoulder to his leg. Well, you might be thinking, in a long series of stories (there are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four longer ones), a writer is apt to get a detail of a character's backstory wrong. But Watson's wound made its famous migration sometime between the first tale, A Study in Scarlet, and the second, The Sign of Four. Not a good omen for the future, though a telling one.

I'll cite just a couple more examples I've come across recently. In "The Copper Beeches," a young governess arrives at 221B for a morning meeting, stays about twenty minutes, and bids Holmes and Watson "good-night" as she leaves. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife refers to him as James, though his given name was John. Speaking of the doctor's wife, the reports of her death seem to have been greatly exaggerated, as she returns from the grave from time to time. Or was there a second Mrs. Watson? Or half a dozen?

Dorothy L. Sayers, another of my favorites, once wrote a scholarly essay that attempted to straighten out the date problems in "The Red-Headed League." She focused on four issues, one of which might be called "The Mystery of the Missing Summer." The story is set in October of 1890 but a character refers to an April newspaper article as having appeared "just two months ago." What, as current scholars might phrase the question, is up with that?

I find two features of Doyle's carelessness particularly intriguing. The first is its endurance. Okay, so Doyle wrote quickly and didn't get much help from his editors at the Strand Magazine. But who was minding the store when the stories were collected in book form? Buy any new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes today and in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife will still get his first name wrong. October 9, 1890 will still be called a Saturday in "The Red-Headed League" when it was in fact a Thursday. It's as though Doyle carved his first drafts in stone.
 
Even late in his long life, by which time Sir Arthur must have known that the tossed-off Holmes tales were going to outlive his more serious literary efforts, he didn't clean up after himself, though by then he must have received hundreds of letters from helpful or confused readers. By then, too, pioneering Sherlockian scholars had published essays on all aspects of the Holmes tales, including the puzzling problems.

Doyle might have recognized in this correspondence and in the critical literature an unlooked-for benefit from his mistakes. I find this benefit to be the second intriguing characteristic of Doyle's carelessness: its appeal. Far from turning readers off, it draws them in. It makes the Sherlock Holmes stories a particularly interactive form of fiction.

All fair play mysteries are interactive to the extent that readers are invited to solve the crime along with the detective, but the Sherlock Holmes stories take interaction to a whole new level. Like Dorothy Sayers, generations of writers, who presumably had better things to do (like dogs to walk and lawns to mow), have taken up their pens to try to reconcile or explain away Watson's two wives and the "long interview" in "The Copper Beeches" and so on. (One of Sayers' explanations for the date problems in "the Red-Headed League" was transcription errors caused by Watson's poor handwriting, perhaps the earliest argument against cursive.)

In the process, the Sherlockians scholars have created hours of enjoyment for readers who love the stories and maybe even helped the stories live on. It's enough to make an author cast a jaundiced eye on writing-manual advice of the "revise endlessly" variety. A little carelessness might actually be good for the soul of a work. To paraphrase Holmes himself, once you have eliminated actual spelling errors, whatever remains, however improbable, might be better left alone.