Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts
Showing posts with label suspense. Show all posts

25 April 2020

How Mary Stewart rocked the Literary World and the Lives of Women like Me


When I say rocked, I don't mean 'rock on'!  Nope, I mean rocked to the core.

Since mid-March, we've been in close to lockdown here in the True North.  That has given me time to revisit old favourties and be utterly shocked by the revelations therein.

When I was a young girl in the seventies, I graduated from Nancy Drew, to Agatha Christie, and then to the masters of romantic suspense, Victoria Holt, Daphne DuMaurier and my particular favourite, Mary Stewart.

Of course I did.  The hormones were running high, and the choice of males in my classroom left a lot to be desired.  I yearned for big romance.  But I wasn't happy with romance genre books and found them boring.  This gal wanted high adventure rather than sweet attraction.  So suspense, it was.

At that young age, I didn't even know what type of man I would want in my life.  Surely not Heathcliff.  Not Mr. Darcy.  Those heroes did not reach me.  Far too brooding and sulky.

Then I read My Brother Michael.  Holy Heartbeat, Batman!  There, I found the man of my dreams and the heroine I wished to become.

Most men of my age know Mary Stewart from her brilliant King Arthur and Merlin novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.  Wonderful books.  But I'm speaking of her romantic suspense novels in this column today.

Simply put, they were revolutionary.

Readers, did you know this?  A quiet revolution was happening in fiction, and Mary Stewart was at the epicentre of it.

In the 70s, I couldn't have put my finger on it.  Now, with decades and experience later, it's absolutely clear to me why she was my favourite.

Why?  Her heroines.  These women were educated and had careers.  They were veterinarians, Latin teachers, Shakespearean actors.  They traveled solo to foreign places!

But with adventure comes mishap.  For years, I had read books and seen movies where women waited to be rescued.  Even The Princess Bride, a movie loved by so many, had a princess who relied on others to rescue her.

I wanted a princess who would pick up the sword herself.  (Even more, ditch the princess.  I wanted her to be Queen.)

Mary Stewart's protagonists had courage and resourcefulness.  They fought back when threatened.  They risked their lives rescuing large animals (This Rough Magic) and even men (The Moonspinners.)  This was not only unusual for the time - it was absolutely groundbreaking.

Second reason I fell in love with the stories of Mary Stewart:  her heroes.

These were the men I wanted in my life.  Some may find this hard to believe (stop laughing) but I have been told I am a strong woman.  I was the sort of gal who was told by profs at university that I "didn't know my place."

In Stewart's books, I found the ideal man for a strong woman.  Her heroes were my kinda guys.  Well-educated, but when things go bad, they don't walk away from a fight.  There was a primitive edge there, a peel back of civilization when the chips are down.

In Airs Above the Ground, the male lead forces the hand of the villain down on a red hot stove burner while saying, "It was this hand, I believe?"  (The hand that had previously hit the hero's wife.)

I cannot begin to tell you how sexy that is.

In My Brother Michael, the heroine is fighting hard but losing.  Her lover arrives just in time to kill a
powerful Greek criminal with his own hands in a to-the-death fight; he breaks the fiend's neck.  Of course, said male lead also happens to be a classics scholar...but hey, in the UK, classics scholars can have commando training.  An unbeatable combination of brains and brawn.


Stewart was magic for a young miss trying to be more than society expected her to.  She was magic to an aspiring writer yearning for adventures.  But more than that, she was revolutionary.

My good friend Jeannette Harrison said it best:

"I think all female crime-fighters of today owe a huge debt to Stewart.  She was one of the first writers of popular fiction to portray women who were not helpless and hysterical in a crisis."

Think about that, you superhero and comic book heroines who kick butt!  All you female private investigators in fiction today!  And give a bow to Mary Stewart, who bravely gave us those role models over fifty years ago.

Vos saluto.

How about you?  Any other authors you would also salute?

Melodie Campbell was hardly ever a mob goddaughter, at least not recently, but she writes about one.  THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS has been shortlisted for the 2020 Arthur Ellis Award 

for Excellence in Crime Writing (Crime Writers of Canada.)  You can find The Goddaughter series at all the usual suspects.

Melodie Campbell
Winner of the Derringer and Arthur Ellis Awards
"Impossible not to laugh." Library Journal review of THE GODDAUGHTER


19 January 2018

Guest Post: V.S. Kemanis on "Writing Legal Suspense"


I'm pleased to host V.S. Kemanis today for an insightful guest post on writing legal suspense fiction. I know Vija best as a fine short story writer whose work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the EQMM anthology The Crooked Road, Volume Three, among other places. But she's also a novelist—Deep Zero, the fourth book in her Dana Hargrove series, releases next week—and as she discusses here, much of the series draws on her background as an attorney herself. As her website explains, "In her legal career, she has been a criminal prosecutor of street crime and organized crime for county and state agencies, argued criminal appeals for the prosecution and defense, conducted complex civil litigation, and worked as a court attorney for state appellate courts." An impressive career, an extensive resume, but how do you draw on one career in law when pursuing another as a writer? In her essay here, she addresses that point and more. Welcome, Vija! — Art Taylor

Writing Legal Suspense: Navigating the Personal and the Professional 
By V.S. Kemanis

V.S. Kemanis

Writing what I “know,” drawing on my legal career, I created a series featuring a female assistant district attorney. To clarify, I recall a pleasant chat I had with two people in a noisy bar—the KGB Bar in Manhattan—on an evening I was scheduled to read from my work. A bit later, when they didn’t realize I was standing nearby, I heard one of them say to the other, “I can’t believe that woman told us she used to be a prostitute!”

Sorry to disappoint, but my protagonist is a female prosecutor, not a prostitute. I’ve given her some enviable qualities without being too liberal in the idealization department. She’s not without her vulnerabilities, some of which are taken from my own experiences.

I went to law school in the late seventies, a time when the male/female student ratio was finally approaching 50/50. By the time I entered the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the class of new recruits was almost evenly split along gender lines, but the courtroom was still largely a man’s world. I never had to break new ground, to go where women had never gone before, but I rode in on the tidal wave of female entrance into the legal profession.

Even so, it was not easy. I remember times when I felt like the fifth wheel or the unwanted interloper in the old boys’ club. A few uncomfortable situations from the early years will never fade from memory. There was an appellate judge who told me during oral argument that I sounded like a “schoolteacher.” A boss who made jokes about not being able to get around me in the hallway when I was pregnant. A roomful of seasoned investigators explicitly discussing a woman’s body, unmindful of my presence.

But these indignities were insignificant compared to greater challenges. Working in the criminal justice system can be an emotional rollercoaster, dealing with shattered lives, tough adversaries, and conflicting views on policing and punishment, to name a few things. For a young professional starting a family, juggling the demands of career and personal life can be nearly overwhelming.

So, when I embarked on my legal suspense series, I wanted to wrap all of this up in my strong-female-lead-with-vulnerabilities character. Her name is Dana Hargrove. For some years now, I’ve been throwing impossible ethical dilemmas at Dana, many involving the intersection of her career and family.

In creating these novels, the easy part is plotting Dana’s criminal cases and ethical dilemmas. A pool of this stuff swirls in the back of my mind, cases I handled as a prosecutor or read about in the latter part of my career as an editor at an appellate court. Insert fictional characters, change some details, find a connection to Dana’s life, and the plot emerges.

The tough part for me is to incorporate the law into the story, without making it sound like a legal brief. I endlessly rewrite the sections with the legal underpinnings for Dana’s conflicts, dilemmas, and decisions. My goal is to be accurate and to make the law accessible and interesting. Not boring. (Really? The law can be boring?) This is where questions of writing technique and target audience come in. I imagine that any writer who relies on technical knowledge to advance a story faces similar challenges.

Let me back up and make an embarrassing admission. I’m absolutely fascinated by criminal law and courtroom procedure! This stuff has everything: it’s intellectual and technical and absurdly detailed but also grounded in basic moral tenets. Who couldn’t love it?

Well, I’ve come to learn that many fans of crime fiction do not share my thrill at the clever gymnastics of incisive legal argument. To be fair, many do. I could decide to limit my target audience to legal nerds like me. But I’d rather make my stories appealing to a broader audience, without sacrificing the legal conundrums. Comments from beta readers, reviewers, and fans have helped with this.

The main technique I use for making the law flow is to cut out a lot of filler. The dramatic bits are highlighted: a brutal cross-examination, the surprise testimony, the jury’s verdict in a close case. This doesn’t make it inaccurate or unrealistic—just condensed. Focusing on the consequences of a prosecutor’s decision, instead of the technical rules, is another way to make the story come alive. If Dana does X, she could be disbarred. If Dana does Y, the killer could go free.

Thanks to popular entertainment, basic legal terms are now part of everyday language: probable cause, Miranda rights, suppression of evidence. The writing challenge arises with ideas that haven’t made it into common parlance: statutory elements of specific crimes and rules of professional ethics. Sometimes, Dana goes through mental gyrations or discusses a problem with her colleagues. I read these scenes out loud to myself and others. Do they make sense? Does the dialogue sound authentic? Funny or not, a lot of lawyer-speak is completely authentic but won’t sound that way to a non-lawyer. “People don’t talk like this.” Actually, they do. But anything that bogs down the story should be trimmed or rewritten to make it more colloquial.

After four novels, my journey through Dana’s fictional world has been a new mix of the professional and the personal. The pastime of fiction writing has morphed into a profession. The creation of characters has morphed into my alternate reality. Dana, her friends and family, have invaded my life.

I ask creators of series if you agree: It’s a lot of fun having a second family.

29 April 2017

Over-Byters Anonymous


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the first in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
Here's my salute to the wonderful families who put up with us crime-writers! 
I write mystery and suspense fiction.  Lately it's been taking over my life.

I blame this on my new laptop.  Sleek and slim, it accompanies me everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the loo.

Unfortunately, it has become too convenient.  I have become a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time.  Take last week, for instance:

"Quick - the laptop! I have an idea and I don't want to lose it."

"Oh no, Mom!  Not the laptop!  Don't do it...don't turn it on...don't"
(Insert theme song from Twilight Zone here.)

Alas, poor Natalie.  She knows what is to come.  Like Jeff Goldblum in that remake of The Fly, I merge with my mini-computer.  We become one.  Conscious only of our own existence.  Oblivious to the sounds of life around us.  Consumed by the story that has to come out of us.

Somewhere, a voice cuts through the fog.

"Mom, I'm hungry."

Normally a staunch advocate of the five food groups, I forget all about artificial flavour, colour dye number 412 and hydrogenated everything.  Lost in the netherworld of word-processing, I utter the dead giveaway:

"There's some Twinkies in the cupboard."

Natalie shakes her head in despair.  "She's gone."

Tap tap tap.  Fingers on the keyboard have a rhythm all their own.  Mesmerizing.  Hours shrink to minutes.  Like a jigsaw puzzle half done, the shreds of my story are piecing themselves together.  If I can only...

"Dad's home, Mom."

"Just a sec."

"It's dinner time, Mom."

"I think there's some Oreo's in the cupboard."

Back to the keyboard.  The laptop is humming our tune.  Words glide across the screen in a seductive dance.  I'm caught in the feverish whirlpool of setting, viewpoint, characterization and climax.

An electric can-opener disturbs my train of thought.

"Earth to Mom.  Want some tuna?"

"Just a sec."

"Honey, are you all right?"

My husband's voice.  What is he doing home so early?

"We're eating now," he says.

"Have a Pop Tart," I blurt.

Natalie shakes her head.  "Give up, Dad."

I'm back to the screen, running with my story character...heart pounding, mind agonizing.  Will he get to the scene before the murderer?  Will he be in time to prevent it?

Somewhere in the house, water is running - pounding on porcelain like thunder.  Hey, that's it!  Add a blinding thunder storm, the hero running through sheets of rain, slipping on wet pavement, unable to read the house numbers....

I PG UP and start revising.

"Night, Mom."

"Night, Mommy"

"Murrmph?"  I don't look up.

Finished.  I save copy and turn off my partner in crime, the laptop.  Draft one, complete.  What a team.  Sitting for hours in one position, I am oddly invigorated.  Ready to run the Boston Marathon, and looking for company.

It's dark outside.  The house is quiet.  I thump upstairs, looking for everyone.

Even my husband is in bed.  I sit on the edge of the mattress, bewildered.

"Why is everyone in bed so early?"

My husband pokes his head up.  "It's 3 a.m."

"It is?"  Astonishing.  Once again, I have been a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time: entire hours mysteriously devoured by the simple on-switch of a computer.  I contemplate starting a self-help group for chronic users:  Over-Byters Anonymous.  But I don't think I could deal with the separation anxiety.

"Wanna read my story?" I ask eagerly.

There are limits to the devotion of even the most supportive family.

It's 3 a.m.  He declines.

Added note:
Today is Authors for Indies day in Canada.  By Indies, we mean independent bookstores.  All across the True North, authors are appearing at independent bookstores to do signings, and show their appreciation.  I will be at Different Drummer bookstore in Burlington, Ontario, this afternoon.  Many thanks to all our independent bookstore owners!

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  Her books and short stories have won 10 awards, even though they are probably certifiable, poor things.  Read at your own risk. www.melodiecampbell.com

17 August 2016

The Hole Truth


In a hole, in Ramat Rachel, Israel.
Someone once said that the essence of story is this: Drop your hero in a hole.

He* tries to get out. Or he dies trying. Or he resigns himself to life in the hole. You get the idea.

More recently, somebody - again, I don't know who - said the key to successful fiction is this: Put your hero in a hole. Then drop rocks on him.

In other words, get the character in a bad situation and keep making it worse.

All this came to mind because I just finished Tipping the Valet, a recent mystery by K.K. Beck. And she takes an approach to that basic formula that I don't recall seeing before. (If you can think of examples, stick 'em in the comments section.)

Here is the set-up for the novel: Tyler Benson is a young man working for a valet service in Seattle. He parks the cars at various fancy restaurants, and he's good at his job.

But on his first night in a new restaurant someone zooms by in a fast car and tries to assassinate Scott Duckworth, a software billionaire, injuring another valet in the process. And just to make things messier, Tyler's dad shows up drunk, hoping to run into his old pal Duckworth, who fired him years ago.

That may not sound like Tyler is in a very deep hole. More like a small dip in the road.

But here is what the reader knows and Tyler doesn't: A gang of Ukrainian car thieves is working with some of the other valets. There is a dead body, and Tyler's fingerprints are intimately associated with it. Plus the cops suspect Tyler's father of the attempted murder of the billionaire.

Pretty messy, huh? But here's what strikes me as unique: Beck has all these rocks piled up over Tyler's head but none of them have landed yet. The reader knows he is in deep doo-doo, but he thinks he's just suffering a minor inconvenience.

And that is a very cool form of suspense.

When the rocks tumble down, about one-third of the way through the book, they all strike at once, and Tyler finds he is in a very deep hole indeed.

But Beck - and the reader - are flying pretty high.

Getting back to the man in a hole theory, I say no. What you see below, two-minutes from the wonderful movie Microcosmos, is the essence of story. I saw it in a theatre and when our hero conquered, the audience went mad with cheers.



* I'm using masculine terms because the protagonist of the book I am going to talk about is a man.

28 April 2016

Janice Law's "Homeward Dove"


by Eve Fisher

Have you ever looked around and realized you're in a dead-end job, in a dead-end town, working your butt off for just enough to keep you in rent and groceries?  Too much drinking, too much junk food, too much wasted time.  A memory of something better - like that girl back in high school - but right now you've settled.  Oh, how you've settled.  The only good thing in your life is fishing, drinking, and the occasional roll in the hay with a woman who's also settled, and doesn't really care...

And it ticks you off, down deep. It should be better than this.  There should at least be a future, right? Maybe a vacation that doesn't involve Motel 6 or a friend's busted out old camper? A better job? A home and family?

And if you can't get that, why should you play it straight?  It's a mug's game, and you don't want to be just another loser.  So you cut corners, do some dicey stuff, make a little money on the side, but you've got your ass covered.  Everything's fine.

And then in she walks.  Not Lana Turner from The Postman Always Rings Twice.  The supervisor from hell, with a clipboard, an attitude, and a taste for money.  The kind of person who knows who's screwing the company, because that's her plan, too.  And she goes straight for your throat.  Pay up, or get fired.  And keep paying, paying, paying...

Welcome to the first 14 pages of Janice Law's new novel, Homeward Dove.  (Available here at Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.)

Our dead-ender is Jeff Woodbine, our supervisor from hell is Michelle, and the high school dream girl is Jess.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.  Like a Coen Brothers' movie, this has twists and turns, dark humor and black deeds, that go places that you don't expect, but when they come, you know they're absolutely right.

Michelle is like all blackmailers, just stupid enough so that her greed makes her feel invincible.  She keeps pushing, and pushing, and pushing for more money.  Jeff is at the end of his rope.  But on the opening day of trout season, when a hungover Jeff climbs out of bed with his f-buddy, Lynn, and goes down to the river to clear his head, who does he find but Michelle, wheeling a toddler down the path.

Well, they're going to get into a fight, right?  Yes.

He's going to kill her, right?  Inadvertently, yes.

The only witness?  A toddler, who can't even speak...

And when he gets back home, Lynn is still asleep, nobody's noticed, everything's fine.

So why does he feel so sick?  And what happens when the police show up?  Thank God - in Jeff's world - for Hurricane Andrew, which gives him a chance to get out of town without seeming like he's running away.  He works hard, cleans up his act, makes some money, lives with it all.

Months later, he's back, to a new job.  And he runs into Jess, the woman he's always wanted, who cried in his arms the night before her marriage to a man who died a few years later, a military hero. She's beautiful, sympathetic, loving; and Leon, her son, is the toddler in the stroller who saw Jeff kill Michelle.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.

There are twists and turns. Conscience and cops.  A fire that damn near destroys everything.  A story that Jeff's grandfather has shared with no one, "Though you're maybe the one to tell."  And when he does, it comes with a warning:  "See you be careful and don't get into [a business] that's as high priced."  But the warning comes too late for Jeff.  What he needs is to know what to do next.

Homeward Dove is like a Coen brothers' or an Alfred Hitchcock movie, where ordinary people in ordinary lives get bad breaks, make bad choices, and do bad things.  Sometimes very bad things. And then try to break free, as frantic as a fly in a spider's web.

You can't help but root for Jeff.  But what's right?  What's fair?  What should happen?  What does?
"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in.
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove...
Dance me to the end of love;
Dance me to the end of love."       Dance me to the end of love - Leonard Cohen

25 August 2015

Learning to Love the Element of Surprise


When you read a novel, you'll often see an acknowledgments page on which the author thanks people who have helped in the creation of the book or in the author's career: friends, experts, librarians. Well, I'm here to say that we mystery writers have someone else to thank. Someone I've never seen thanked publicly before. So today, I give a hearty salute to ... cereal companies.
My current cereal has no prizes. Sob.

Since the mid-1900s, and particularly in the decade of my youth, the '70s, kids cereals often came with a prize buried deep in the box. I'd dutifully eat my cereal every morning, patiently waiting until the day I'd gotten far enough into the box that, joy oh joy, my new toy slid with my cereal into the bowl. What would it be? A fake tattoo? A small race car? A whistle? Whatever it was, I was eager to get it. And in the process of eagerly awaiting my prize each day, I was trained to be a mystery reader.

Think about it. Reading a mystery is just like anticipating the prize in the cereal box. Readers know a surprise is coming at the end, and they wait, happily turning pages, eager to uncover the bad guy or experience a big twist. Or both. Some readers try to figure out whodunit in advance, just as kids used to try to guess what the cereal prize would be. I was a big guesser, so it makes sense that I grew up to love mysteries, reading and writing them.

Googly eyes tattoo from a bandages box.
Of course there were all kinds of cereal eaters, just like there are all kinds of mystery readers. Some kids, like me, waited for the prize to tumble out of the box. We grew up to be readers who start on page one of a book and read until the end. But there were many kids who had no patience. They rammed their arms into each new cereal box, reaching around until they pulled the prize out. These kids grew up to read the last page of a book first.

Sometimes cereal boxes revealed right on them what the prize would be so you went into breakfast knowing what to expect, but not knowing when it would happen. When would the toy slide out of the box? Would it be as cool as you hoped? The kids who liked knowing the prize in advance and enjoyed the ride, waiting each day for the toy to fall into the bowl, became thriller readers.

Alas, the time of mystery prizes buried in cereal boxes seems to be over, which leaves me a little sad. But this development makes it all the more wonderful that the Frito-Lay company has taken up the mantle of training future mystery and thriller readers with their new, time-limited Doritos Roulette
Everything's better with Coke.
Chips. Most of the chips in these bags are normal nacho-cheese Doritos, but every sixth one is superspicy, and you never know which chip it will be until it's in your mouth.

Bob Harris's first bite.
I recently tested these Roulette chips on some friends. They started skeptically. How hot could the superspicy ones be? As you'll see in the photos, pretty darn hot. "One little taste and my tongue's on fire," author Sherry Harris said. "Ooh, I'm sweating," her husband, Bob, said. Ashley Harris added, "The regular chips have a slight kick, and then you hit the hot one and wow." But did they all stop after eating a superspicy chip? Nope. They liked the kick and went back for more. "I hurt myself, but it was good," Bob said.

Tasting a real hot one



Talk about teaching eaters--and readers--to love suspense and the element of surprise. Knowing the extraspicy chips are in the bag, but not knowing when you'll get that explosion in your mouth, is like reading a thriller, knowing there's a ticking time bomb under the table and waiting, heart pounding, until it goes off. And by putting more than one superspicy chip in each bag, the Doritos people are training readers to enjoy the rollercoaster ride of a good mystery, as the story waxes and wanes, and the main character faces greater and greater hurdles as she gets closer to the end of the story or book.

He's sweating!
That is excitement. That is the fun of reading a mystery. And that is the delight that cereal companies used to bring with the prizes hidden in their boxes, and that the Frito-Lay company is bringing now with their Doritos Roulette Chips. Alas, I understand these chips are only on sale through the end of this month, so if you want to experience them, run out and get a bag now, before they effectively go out of print. But before you do, please join me in thanking cereal companies and Frito-Lay, on behalf of crime writers everywhere, for priming kids and grown-up snackers to love mysteries so much that they come back, again and again, to read more. For mysteries are like any good chip--you can't just have one.

Do you recall a favorite prize you got from a cereal box? Or have you tried the Doritos Roulette Chips? I'd love to hear about it.


07 July 2015

Suspense the Hard Way: Writing Suspense Stories When You Already Know the Outcome


In early June, I attended the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City in the LA area. I was on a panel called Thrills and Chills. The panel’s topic was suspense, how to create it, sustain it, etc. Many good points were made by my fellow panelists, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Laurie Stevens, Diana Gould, moderator, and I hope by me too. Being on that panel got me thinking about what defines suspense? Is it a cliffhanger? A surprise ending? A reversal? A twist? All of which is part of it. Or is there something else? But I’ll leave the micro mechanics of suspense writing for another time. What I want to talk about here is a certain type of suspense/thriller that’s based on real events and/or people.
Thrills and Chills Panel CCWC  -- 6-2015 -- d3

When one’s writing a fictional story with fictional characters it’s one thing. It’s another thing completely when you’re writing a story based on a real character or characters and situations, because, if the reader is halfway literate (which is getting more and more iffy all the time), they will know the outcome of the story before they read the first word.

Some cases in point:

jackal 1aMy favorite example of this is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. The book came out in 1971, about a year after Charles de Gaulle died. It’s a suspense-thriller about an attempt to assassinate de Gaulle in the early 1960s. I remember reading the book when it came out, turning page after page. Sneaking a read here and there because it kept me so engrossed. And I knew how it would end. At least I knew de Gaulle would not be assassinated, because I knew that in real life he wasn’t murdered. So the incredible thing about that book for me is how the author kept me, and others, interested when we knew the outcome. An amazing feat. And how he had us rooting for the Jackal to succeed, even though we knew he wouldn’t, and even if in real life we wouldn’t have wanted that.

In The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins’ thriller, Nazi commandos allied with Irish revolutionaries attempt to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Complications ensue. But once again, we know the outcome in real life: Churchill was never kidnapped. Still, Higgins manages to keep our attention and keep us guessing—will they succeed? Or is this an alternate history with a totally different outcome from what really happened?

And my wife and I just recently watched Bugsy again, the Warren Beatty movie about the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel. Again we knew the ending. We knew he got murdered, we knew pretty much the how and why, at least according to the movie. Yet still we were glued to the screen. (And as a side note, I grew up across the street from Bugsy’s brother, a doctor—and his family—who Bugsy put through medical school.)

A couple other movies that come to mind are an oldie but goodie, Manhunt, with Walter Pigeon, and Valkyrie-2008-BluRay-postera newer flick, Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise. Both are about plots to assassinate Hitler, and if anyone deserved it, well..., but I digress. Manhunt is a fictional story, to my knowledge, and, as it was made in 1941, World War II was still going strong. So who knew at that time, maybe a plot to kill Hitler was going to happen? But the fact is the story is fiction, and Hitler was still alive and kickin’ when the movie came out. So people watching it then knew the ending wasn’t going to work out, at least not when the movie was released. But somehow the suspense worked and you are sucked into believing it. Valkyrie, based on a true story, came out in 2008, so everybody knew, well almost everybody, well maybe nearly almost everybody, well maybe a handful of people knew, that Hitler hadn’t actually been assassinated. But again the story was like a roller coaster ride at Magic Mountain. You were still rooting for the conspirators to kill Hitler and to get away with their lives even when you knew they wouldn’t. There’s also Argo, with Ben Affleck, and we knew the outcome there too, but were still on the edge of our seats, waiting to see if that group of people would get out of Iran alive.

So how do these authors and filmmakers keep us interested and involved when we already know the outcome?
Alfred-Hitchcock-227x300
“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
From: Hitchcock
By Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock

The suspense comes from empathizing with the characters, wanting them to get away or even succeed, even if you know they can’t/won’t and even if they’re anti-heroes or badguys. You want them to come out of it alive. Since you know from the get-go that the mission fails, you have a sense of suspense in hoping the character won’t be injured and will get away in the end. We’re also interested in the how of it—the how-dun-it? How do they plan to achieve their aim of killing de Gaulle or Hitler or kidnapping Churchill?
Also, like the ticking bomb in Hitchcock’s example of suspense (see sidebar), the reader knows they’re going to fail so you’re watching them run towards the “ticking timebomb,” hoping they’ll escape before it’s too late. But with Day of the Jackal, also what makes the reader want the killer to succeed? Isn’t he a “bad guy”. Why don’t you want the other characters to succeed in catching him?

So how does a writer achieve this? A full answer would probably take a book, but briefly: Initially you might not be rooting for the anti-hero. But as the author introduces you to the character and his/her goal you might start identifying with them and their mission. And even though you know their mission is a bad one, like kidnapping Churchill that might have changed the outcome of the war, you still feel a sense of suspense in wanting them to either get caught or succeed. It’s not because you identify with the Nazis per se, but you identify with these individuals and their efforts to achieve their goal or you’re hoping like hell that they won’t. And just like with any other character, the author puts them in jeopardy and puts obstacles in their way so the reader wonders whether or not they’ll get out of it. Also, sometimes villains can be charming or tough or cool. We admire their skill and caginess and we want to live vicariously through them and their adventures.

Sometimes the outcome isn’t the most important part of a story. It’s the ride getting there. So, while a spectacular ending may be good in some books, for some it is more important to build great characters and suspense and not rely on a surprise ending to leave the reader with a good feeling. In a way you have to work harder on the meat of the story when readers already know the outcome, but it is one way you can really distinguish a writer who is a master of suspense—when they can still build suspense with a known outcome.

So sometimes suspense isn’t just about the surprise ending or the unexpected, sometimes it’s about knowing what’s going to happen but wanting something different to happen and how that in itself can create tension, suspense and a great ride along the way.

***

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11 April 2015

Go Away, Space Angel! I'm Trying to Write Crime


by Melodie Campbell

A funny thing happened on the way to the crime book: it became a comic sci-fi spy novella.

That’s the frustrating thing about being a fiction writer.  Sometimes you don’t pick your characters – they pick you.

I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when…no, that’s not how it happened.

It was far worse.

“Write a spy novel!” said the notable crime reviewer (one of that rare breed who still has a newspaper column.) We were yapping over a few drinks last spring.  “A funny one. Modesty Blaise meets Maxwell Smart, only in modern day, of course.”

“Sure!” I said, slurping Pinot by the $16 glass.  After all, crime is my thing.  I was weaned on Agatha Christie.  I had 40 crime short stories and 5 crime books published to date.  This sounded like the perfect 'next series' to write.

And I intended to.  Truly I did.  I tried all summer. I even met with a former CSIS operative to get the scoop on the spy biz (think CIA, but Canada – yes, he was polite.)    

Wrote for two months solid.  The result was…kinda flat.  (I blame the Pinot.  Never take up a book-writing dare with a 9 oz. glass of Pinot in your hand. Ditto good single malt.  THAT resulted in a piece of erotica that shall forever be known under a different name…  But I digress.)

Back to the crime book.  I started to hate it.  

Then, in the middle of the night (WHY does this always happens in the middle of the night?) a few characters started popping up.  Colourful, fun characters, from another time. They took my mind by siege.  “GO AWAY,” I told them. “I’m trying to write a crime book!”

They didn’t.  It was a criminal sit-in.  They wouldn’t leave until I agreed to write their tale.
So the modern day spy novel became a futuristic spy novel.  Modesty Blaise runs a bar on a space-station, so to speak.  Crime in Space, with the kind of comedy you might expect from a descendent of The Goddaughter.

Two more months spent in feverish writing.  Another two in rewrites.  Then another, to convince my publisher that the project had legs.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH is the result.  Yet another crossing the genres escapade.

Written by me, and a motley crew of night visitors.

Now hopefully they will keep it down in there so I can sleep.

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
“Comedy and Space Opera – a blast to read” (former editor Distant Suns magazine)
“a worthy tribute to Douglas Adams”  (Cathy Astolfo, award-winning author)

It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier...especially when you’re also a spy!

Nell Romana loves two things: the Blue Angel Bar, and Dalamar, a notorious modern-day knight for hire.  Too bad he doesn't know she is actually an undercover agent.  When Dalamar is called away on a routine job, Nell uncovers a rebel plot to overthrow the Federation. She has to act fast and alone. 

Then the worst happens.  Her cover is blown…

Buy link AMAZON
Buy link SMASHWORDS

The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.”  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  She has over 200 publications and nine awards for fiction.  Code Name: Gypsy Moth (Imajin Books) is her eighth book.

17 January 2015

They Call Me a Literary Slut


"The Princess Bride with Sex” or Why I Write Wacky Time Travel (in addition to respectable crime)

I am best known as a writer of comic crime capers, and in particular The Goddaughter series (Orca Books).  However, I also have a second life as an author of racy fantasy…the sort of thing that has been called “OUTLANDER meets Sex and the City.”

This has gotten me the rep of being labeled a 'literary slut,' in that I 'write around' in a lot of genres.

Why?  Why would a moderately respectable crime author swap genres and write a wacky time travel series, set in Arizona and Alternate-world Great Britain?

1.  I like Arizona.  Especially in winter.  You can fly nonstop there from Toronto.
(Whoops – delete, delete.  Of course, the real reason for using Arizona is I believe in accuracy of setting and doing research, which I take great pains to do once each year in February.) 


2.  I like Great Britain.  And I like to be accurate.  But you can’t travel to medieval Great Britain right
now, at least not on WestJet. (WHY doesn’t someone invent a cheap time travel airline?)  So I can’t be accurate, which bugs me a lot.  But I can be silly, which is almost as good.  Hence, Alt-world.


3.  My cousin Tony’s family, the Clegg-Hills, used to own a Norman castle in Shropshire.  Unfortunately it burned down in 1556.  Damned careless of them.  I had to make up what it would look like from family stories, which are probably dubious at best, and vaguely criminal, on reflection.  Also, I hate being sued. Hence, Alt-world.


4.  Fessing up, here.  I actually didn’t mean to write funny time travel.  I meant to write a serious whodunit that would get the respect of the Can-Lit crowd, and the more erudite members of Crime Writers of Canada.  This ‘veering from plan’ is becoming a nuisance.  Next book, for sure, will be a serious whodunit.  Okay, maybe a whodunit.  Okay, maybe a book.


5.  Okay, I lied.  The serious whodunit turned into a wacky mob comedy series that has won a Derringer and an Arthur.  Still no respect from the Can-Lit crowd.  So I might as well go back to writing wacky time travel.

Why?  ‘Cause it’s a hell of a lot of fun being a literary slut.

Are you a literary slut?  Confession time!  If you write in more than one genre, let us know in the comments.

Flash Update: The Land's End Trilogy featured in this blog started charting on Amazon this week, and on Thursday made the overall Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list, at no. #47!  Author is faint~ 

Land's End Trilogy ("OUTLANDER meets SEX AND THE CITY" Vine review) is on sale for a ridiculous 99cents this weekend!  If you were ever curious about her 'other life'...'nuf said. 

03 January 2015

Mess with me, Darlin'? Watch me Kill You with Words


(In which we attempt to address a serious subject in a light-hearted way)

Here’s some news for all you sociopaths out there, and just plain nasties: Don’t mess with a crime writer.  We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.

On paper, of course <insert nervous laughter>. We’re talking about fictional kills here.

Or are we?

My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comic mob capers for a living. And for the loving. So I know a bit about the mob. Like espresso and cannoli, you might say they come with my Sicilian background.

This should make people nervous. (Hell, it makes ME nervous.)

But I digress. To recap:  the question offered here was:

Do you ever take out real life rage on fictional murder victims? Are any of your victims based on people who pissed you off in real life?

Oh sweetie, don’t I ever.

One of the joys of being a writer is playing out scenarios in your fiction that you dream about at night.  One of these is murder.  (The other is sex, but that would be my other series, the Rowena Through the Wall fantasy one.)

Back to grievous bodily harm. Like in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, I have my little list.

To the covert colleague who made out to be friends and then bad-mouthed me to the board at a previous job. 

Yes, you got caught red-handed. I called your bluff.  But better than that, I made your mealy-mouthed sorry hide a star of THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE.  Goodbye, Carmine the rat.  You live forever in fictional history.

He never will be missed.

To the sociopathic boss who undermined an entire department and got a kick out of making my sweet younger colleague cry: may you age like a hag and end up alone.  Oh wait – you did. And not just in A PURSE TO DIE FOR.

She never will be missed.

Oh, the joy of creating bad guys and gals from real-life creeps!  The crafty thing is, when you design a villain based on people you have met in person and experienced in technicolor, they sound real. Colourful.  Their motivations are believable, because they actually exist. No cardboard characters here! 

Of course, I may fudge a few details to keep out of jail. Names and professions change. Males can morph into females.

But fictional murder can be very satisfying. (Definitely more satisfying than fictional sex. Oops.) 

Revenge is sweet, when coupled with royalties. 

You can ignore that crack about 'fictional kills only.' Of course we’re only talking books; in my case, light-hearted murder mysteries, and mob crime capers.

That’s right: mob capers. Like I said: never mess with a Sicilian Goddaughter.

Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best when Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Her fifth novel, THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, won the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis.  www.melodiecampbell.com

23 May 2014

Shoot the Woman First


There's an ATF Agent I occasionally swap short stories with online. I met him at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Denver a few years back when we were both presenters at that conference. We soon found the two of us had a lot in common. Afterwards, we recommended new authors to each other and/or new books to read. A couple of months ago, he brought up the name of Wallace Stroby and suggested I try that author's later novels. I'd never heard of the guy, but decided to check out one of his books to see if he was worth reading.

First stop was Amazon for Kindle books, where I found Stroby had three novels in a new series: Cold Shot to the Heart, 2011, Kings of Midnight, 2012 and Shoot the Woman First, 2013. I was intrigued by the last title, wondering why the woman had to go first, especially since the series protagonist is female. I calculated that since this one was his latest work, then it would probably be his best and I would therefore soon know whether or not I was wasting my time. Turned out, I enjoyed the 2013 book so much that I felt compelled to go back and purchase the first two in the series. Since each book is a great stand alone read, yet builds on the one before, had I known they would be that good, I would have bought and read them in chronological order.

If you like action/suspense books written fairly true to the world of criminals, then you will enjoy Stroby's three novels with Crissa Stone as the main character in this series.

As Shoot the Woman First opens, Crissa is meeting with three men in a car on the streets of Detroit at night. Two of the men she has worked with on previous jobs. She trusts them as much as she trusts any criminal she gets involved with, which is to say that trust needs to get re-earned on every new job. The third man in the car is cousin to one of the first two men, and him she has real concerns about because he is a college kid, unproven in the criminal world. However, he is also the man with the needed inside information, so he's part of the crew or there is no job.

The four of them are having a discussion in a rented car on a street in the bad part of town while watching a drop car allegedly containing about a half million dollars of drug buy money in the trunk. Between them and the drop car is a vehicle with three armed gangsters whose duty it is to make sure the right people are the only ones to drive away in the car with all that cash.

You, as reader, are right on scene as Crissa devises a plan to distract and temporarily disable the three armed gangsters while the rest of the crew takes the buy money out of the drop car. The job goes as planned with only a couple of minor problems. It's an hour later that everything goes to hell. A corrupt, retired police detective is subsequently hired by the gang leader to find whoever stole his money. Conflicted with loyalty to certain partners and paranoia of who to trust, Crissa runs the tight wire of protecting herself and members of her family from the ensuing retribution.

Bottom line, all three books are good reads. And, if you want to find out why you shoot the woman first, you need to buy the book, or (according to the corrupt detective) you can ask a member of a counter terrorist team.

See ya again on Fortnight Friday.

30 March 2013

From FARGO to ARGO


by John M. Floyd

Question: What does it take for a movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture? If I were doing the selecting, the main requirement--maybe the only requirement--would be entertainment value. But that is of course not enough; any of us who follow movies know that Best Picture contenders should also have at least some of what we might call "literary" merit. In other words, they should be illuminating as well as entertaining. (Sometimes they apparently only have to be illuminating, period--but I won't go down that road today.)

A requirement for actually winning Best Picture is usually that the film has already, several minutes earlier in the ceremony, also captured the Oscar for Best Director. The two awards often go hand in hand, and only four times--including the Oscar ceremony held earlier this year--has a film won Best Picture when it was not even nominated for Best Director.

And the winner is . . .

What I'm leading up to here is that the other night I finally watched, for the first time, the movie Argo, and saw what all the fuss was about. And let me say right now, I thought it deserved its Best Picture Oscar. In my opinion, Ben Affleck should also have won for Best Director. I have no idea why he wasn't even nominated, but--again--that's a different matter.

Another question. Assuming some of you would agree with me that Argo was a good film, what was it that made it so good? There are many possible answers here: the script, the performances, the cinematography--all of those were extremely well done. But I think its strongest point was its level of suspense. (Which, to me, translates into "entertainment.")

How to do a howdunit

Argo is not a mystery/crime story. It's a story about a plot to rescue a group of embassy staff members from a foreign country, under the very nose of a hostile government, by pretending that they are members of a film crew planning to shoot a fictitious movie. That premise itself was fascinating: Hollywood working undercover with the CIA? But what made the story great was the tension, the anticipation, the fear that these people might be discovered and captured. Failure in this case would have meant certain death--probably death by torture--and there were many, many different ways that what they were attempting could fail. The final twenty minutes of the movie involved some of the best armrest-gripping, sphincter-tightening suspense I've seen in a long time.

Part of this was the old "ticking clock" technique. At one point the escapees were at the airport and their plane was about to leave, and if it left without them they would die. They realized it, and we as viewers realized it. If the ticket agent at the counter couldn't find the reservations that the Washington folks had supposedly made for the group, the hero and all the people he was trying to rescue would die. If the telephone didn't get answered quickly enough in Hollywood when the Iranian security officer phoned the fake number to check the escapees' fake story, they would all die. If any of those being questioned about their phony identities/jobs/backgrounds didn't respond correctly and promptly and convincingly, they would all die.

Adding to this feeling of tension was the fact that we had come to know and understand and sympathize with the characters--especially those in the CIA who were risking everything to try to bring the good guys home. And the familiar setting didn't hurt. Few of us have been to Iran, but all of us have been in airports at one time or another, wondering if we'd make our plane.

Shoptalk

Another plus was that the writing was excellent. Here are a few (paraphrased) examples of the dialogue:

CIA guy: There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.
Official: You don't have a better bad idea than this?
CIA boss: This is the best bad idea we have, sir.

Movie guy: So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot--
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: --without actually doing anything?
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: You'll fit right in.

CIA guy: Can you teach somebody to be a director in a day?
Movie guy: You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.

CIA boss: If you want applause, you should've joined the circus.
CIA employee: I thought I did.

Movie guy: Okay, you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million people, all of whom chant "Death to America" all day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you're going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world.
CIA guy: Past about a hundred militia at the airport. That's right.
Movie guy: Look, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.

True Lies

One thing surprised me a bit. I was afraid that since this story was based on real events, and since most of the viewers already knew (via either media hype or a good memory) what would eventually happen… that could be a disadvantage. It turned out it wasn't. Prior knowledge of the outcome didn't hurt Titanic, Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, or The Day of the Jackal--and it didn't hurt Argo either. What kept it interesting was the storytelling process itself. Even so, it's no small feat for moviemakers to keep an audience properly worried for more than two hours about the ending when the audience already knows the ending.

My point, if there is one to be made, is that we mystery/suspense writers can learn a lot from movies like this. What did the writer and director do to make us care deeply about the characters? How did they make us want so badly for the protagonist to succeed? What did they do to make us so concerned that he might not? How did they manage to tell a humdinger of a suspense story without making it an "action" story?

Afflectations

I can't help mentioning here that for years it seemed that the two Good Will Hunting guys had gone off in separate directions: Matt Damon was making all the right career decisions (Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ocean's Eleven, The Bourne Identity) and Ben Affleck was making all the wrong ones (Reindeer Games, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl). Then, somewhere along the way, Affleck started doing things like Hollywoodland and Gone Baby Gone and State of Play and The Town. Now, he's widely recognized as one of the best directors and actors around.

In closing, I would rank this movie right up there with other Best Picture "suspense" winners and nominees like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, The Departed, The Green Mile, and The Silence of the Lambs.

My advice: Argo see it.