26 June 2021

How to Create a Great Villain


Ah, those students of mine.  Here I was, doing the lecture thing about motivation, how ALL your characters need to have believable motivation for what they are doing.  Especially, doncha know, your antagonist (villain, if you prefer.)  "No Cardboard Villains!" I profoundly announced.


And then the question...

"So, how DO you create a great villain?" he asked.

Bless his little heart.

"Em...." I said with scholarly conviction.  "Just what I'm going to cover next week!"

Next day, prof frantically writes a brand new handout, here presented.  With thanks to my beloved students for keeping me on my toes....

 HOW TO CREATE A GREAT VILLAIN

Let's go back to basics.  How many characters do you need for a novel?

Melodie says:  a minimum of three  (and yes, there are always exceptions.)

Your Protagonist.  This is your main character, your main viewpoint character.  We will be experiencing the story through her eyes throughout.

Sidekick.  Your protagonist (and your story) will likely benefit from having a sidekick, some friendly soul to share the journey with.  If you don't give your main character a sidekick, then she will be spending pages and pages talking to herself, which is boring for the read.  

Examples:  Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  In my Rowena Through the Wall series, Rowena and Kendra.  In The Goddaughter series, Gina and her loopy cousin Nico.

Antagonist.  Yes, usually you need someone to provide the conflict.  We might call them a villain.  Your protagonist wants something that isn't easy to get and often there will be a villain standing in his way.

 KILL OFF CARDBOARD VILLAINS

So many times, villains seem cardboard.  This is because the author hasn't spent time building them into believable characters.  Sure, your villain can be a psychopath who is simply insane, but that gets pretty boring for readers.  

The most interesting villains are those who have desires that we can relate to.

Have you ever wished someone harm?  Villains do so as well.  Why do they act on those desires when we would hold back?  THAT's what makes them interesting.

Checklist for creating a Great Villain:

1.  KNOW HOW A VILLAIN THINKS - The number one thing to keep in mind when creating your antagonist?  Villains never think they are villains.  To them, their actions are justified and rational.  They are acting in their own self-interest.  Others simply stand in the way of what they want and deserve.

Get that last word:  deserve. Often, villain feel they have been cheated of what they rightly deserve.

2.  BELIEVABLE MOTIVATION - Make sure your antagonist has adequate motivation.  Don't neglect this!  Why is he doing what he's doing?  What does he want?  Why is he taking the risk?  In many countries and past ages, murder comes with the death penalty.  What is so important to him that he would take that risk?

Motivations for villains:  Revenge for past wrongs, safety, monetary gain, business or professional gain, power of overs, sexual desire (particularly for the protagonist.)  All the traditional motivations for murders:  Revenge, sex and money.

3.  GIVE HIM BACKGROUND - Your villain didn't get the way he is out of nowhere.  He didn't start out a villain.  Make him three-dimensional, and for goodness sake, avoid using trite over-used dialogue ("Now I have you in my clutches...")  I advise doing a character sketch for your villain as well as your protagonist.

4.  A LIKEABLE VILLAIN?  Can you make your antagonist likeable?  Of course you can!  Soren, in Rowena and the Viking Warlord, is a demon summoned from Hell.  Old religions knew him as Baal.  He is scary as all get-out, when first introduced to the reader.  But as you get to know him more and learn his motivations, you might even start to like him.  He's not ALL bad.  Let me repeat that. Not all bad.  Think about that, when creating your villain.

5.  MAKE IT PERSONAL - Finally, when possible, give your villain a history with the protagonist.  Yes, you can write about a psychopath who picks victims at random.  But isn't if far more interesting if the antagonist has a history with the protagonist?  The bad-boy past boyfriend who returns suddenly to your heroine's life and puts it in turmoil?  The girl you hated in high school who is now the defense attorney standing in the way of your solving the crime... Past unresolved emotions can add more power to your manuscript.

Remember:  Your villain is there to provide CONFLICT in your novel.  Will your protagonist get what they want?  Readers keep turning pages to find out, so make sure you maintain that conflict until the very end.

Melodie Campbell has written several series in many genres, but you can always count on them being funny.  Books available at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com


 

 


 

4.      


25 June 2021

Ugolino Revisited


It’s November 2020. The weather’s warm on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving, so we decide to drink a bottle of wine outside on the patio. For eight months we have patronized a wine shop that delivers right to our door. The wine guy knows our tastes so well that he now just picks bottles he thinks we will enjoy. My wife grabs a bottle of white out of the fridge and brings it outside with two glasses. We pop the cork and pour the wine. My eyes flit across the label, and suddenly I’m traveling back in time.

You know this kind of moment, don’t you? Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, on the strength of a single, now-legendary memory—experienced by his protagonist. When writers bandy about the adjective Proustian, they are referring to this scene.

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer via Unsplash

“I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.”
In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh employs not taste but a word and a sight to trigger the reverie of his narrator. In the middle of World War II Charles Ryder awakes one morning in his army tent to find that his unit is encamped on the grounds of an old country estate. He asks someone where they are.
“He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
They’re at Brideshead, of course. Ryder will now take 14 chapters to tell us why the place evokes such a profound feeling (largely of loss) in him. I suppose 14 chapters isn’t a bad length to milk a memory. Proust needed seven whole volumes to do the same.

Most people would call these moments flashbacks, but Proust called them involuntary memory. In creative works such experiences have three important components: 1) they trigger a memory of one’s youth, 2) accompanied by feelings of melancholy/loss, and 3) that memory has to be so freaking important that your plot lives or dies by it.

In The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano suffers panic attacks whenever he sees, smells, or eats meat. These puzzling attacks trigger medical intervention, and eventually psychotherapy—which becomes the entire conceit of the show. In therapy, Tony realizes that as a kid he first witnessed his father’s violence in the back room of a butcher’s shop, and later watched his parents become amorous after Pop brings home meat from that pork store. Sex, meat, violence—madonna mia!—no wonder the guy’s screwed up.

In my family, we refer to such moments as “The Ratatouille Whoosh Scene.” In the Disney/Pixar film, our tiny protagonist—Remy, a rat who dreams of being a chef—finally gets his big chance to cook a meal for the snootiest (and aptly named) Parisian food critic, Anton Ego. The critic is primed to hate the work of this new, unknown chef. The waiter brings out a plate of the classic peasant dish. A puzzled Ego pops a morsel into his mouth. Whoosh!—he’s transported to his childhood and some memories of his sweet Maman. The entire plot of the film—and the lives of all the characters, including the critic—are transformed by that reverie.


I’m unsure if my whoosh moment last November lives up to the Proustian ideal. It was far from life-changing, but it did remind me that as much we strive to live in the present, the past has a hold on us that we can never shake. And when we write fictional characters, it’s wise to layer in these types of memories.


The wine, you see, was Italian, and bore the name Ugolino.

When I was a kid in high school, learning Italian for the first time, our teacher had us read selections from Dante’s Inferno. And so we learned that in the Ninth Circle of Hell resided the tortured spirit of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In real life he’d been an Italian noble and military commander who was tossed in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons for the crime of treason. In Dante’s scene, Ugolino recounts how his starving kin begged him to ease his own pain (and theirs) by killing and eating them.

Apologies for inserting the grisly specter of cannibalism into a story that up to now has featured subjects as lovely as baked goods, vegetable dishes, country estates, capicola, and wine. Cannibalism appears in true crime, journalism, fiction, fairy tales, and filmed dramas, but this is the only example I can think of where the subject figures in epic poetry. Archeologists say the real Ugolino (and his family) did not resort to cannibalism in their cell. But Dante hints at it in his lines, and depicts Ugolino as chewing on the skull of his enemy, the archbishop who had him imprisoned.

Our teacher asked for volunteers to read these passages aloud. Finding our attempts lackluster, our teacher demonstrated for us what he considered to be a lively, animated declamation. He threw his arms in the air, and cried to the heavens in a high-pitched wail: “Ugolino!!!! Save yourself! Eat us! Eat us, father!” (Paraphrasing the heck out of this passage.)

The whole class burst out laughing. The teacher, you see, was morbidly obese. Probably one of the largest people I have ever known. The sight of his gigantic, quivering, gesturing body at the head of the room moved the entire class of pubescent shits, myself included, to moist-eyed peals of laughter.
And now, forty years later, my eyes were moist again for a different reason. Now, I could only feel how much that teacher cared about us. I recalled his proficiency in four languages. And remembered how he’d died when barely into his forties, a victim of his own overworked heart.

I hadn’t thought of that lesson in years. That the memory should pop into my mind in all its freakish glory—cannibalism and poetry entwined—because of a strangely named bottle of wine drunk eight months into a pandemic is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenes you’d never attempt to stick in a story. Or would you?

Photo by MadMax Chef on Unsplash

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


24 June 2021

Kids These Days, Revisited....


I'm up against a couple of deadlines, and it's also the end of the school year this week. Yes, that's right: this infernal three-year-long School-Year of COVID is finally drawing to a close. I had intended to wrap up the thread I began with my post about the death of American diplomat and scheming gadfly Silas Deane and the man who may have killed him, British man of letters and spy Edward Bancroft, by talking about the man Deane hired to create mayhem in Britain and who also nearly got Bancroft hanged: revolutionary arsonist-for-hire, John the Painter. 

That will have to wait until next time.

Instead, I'm doing a call-back to a post I did five years ago, in the midst of a divisive presidential election-also an end of the school year post, one that reflected my unshakeable faith in this country. And here we are, half-a-decade later, having come through on the other side of any number of traumatic experiences, and that faith remains strong.

Which is why I'm reposting this below.

*     *     *     *     *

So, about my day gig.

I teach ancient history to eighth graders.

And like I tell them all the time, when I say, "Ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s.

For thirteen/fourteen year-olds, mired hopelessly in the present by a relentless combination of societal trends and biochemistry, there's not much discernible difference between the two eras.

I wish!
It's a great job. But even great jobs have their stressors.

Like being assigned chaperone duty during the end-of-the-year dance.

Maybe you're familiar with what currently passes for "popular music" among fourteen year-olds these days. I gotta say, I don't much care for it. Then again, I'm fifty-one. And I can't imagine that most fifty-one year-olds in 1979 much cared for the stuff that I was listening to then.

And it's not as if I'm saying I had great taste in music as a fourteen year-old. If I were trying to make myself look good I'd try to sell you some line about how I only listened to jazz if it was Billie Holiday or Miles Davis, and thought the Police were smokin' and of course I bought Dire Straits' immortal Making Movies album, as well Zeppelin's In Through The Out Door when they both came out that year.

Well. No.

The sad reality.
In 1979 I owned a Village People vinyl album (Cruisin', with "YMCA" on it), and a number of ElvisPresley albums and 8-track tapes. I also listened to my dad's Eagles albums quite a bit. An uncle bought Supertramp's Breakfast in America for me, and I was hooked on a neighbor's copy of Freedom at Point Zero by Jefferson Starship, but really only because of the slammin' guitar solo Craig Chaquico played on its only hit single: "Jane." And I listened to a lot of yacht rock on the radio. I didn't know it was "yacht rock" back then. Would it have mattered?

But bear in mind we didn't have streaming music back then. And my allowance I spent mostly on comic books.

Ah, youth.

Anyway, my point is that someone my age back then may very well have cringed hard and long and as deeply if forced to listen to what I was listening to at eardrum-bursting decibels, and for the better part of two hours.

That was me on the second-to-the-last-day of school a week or so back.

Two hours.

Two hours of rapper after rapper (if it's not Eminem, Tupac, or the Beastie Boys, I must confess it all sounds the same to me) alternating with heavily autotuned "singing" by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, etc.

Thank God we got some relief in the form of the occasional Bruno Mars song. Bruno, he brings it.

All Hail Bruno Mars - Savior of My Sanity

And through it all, the kids were out there on the floor. Mostly girls, and mostly dancing with each other.

Great album, great cover, great band.
One group of these kids in particular caught my attention. Three girls, all fourteen, all of whom I knew. All wearing what '80s pop-rock band Mr. Mister once referred to as the "Uniform of Youth."

Of course, the uniform continues to change, just as youth itself does.

But in embracing that change, does youth itself actually change? Bear with me while I quote someone a whole lot smarter than I on the matter:

"Kids today love luxury. They have terrible manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to gab instead of getting off their butts and moving around."

The guy quoted (in translation) was Socrates, quoted by his pupil Plato, 2,400 years ago.

And some things never change.

Getting back to the three girls mentioned above, their "uniform of youth" was the one au courant in malls and school courtyards across the length and breadth of this country: too-tight jeans, short-sleeved or sleeveless t-shirts, tennis-shoes. They looked a whole lot like so many other girls their age, out there shaking it in ways that mothers the world over would not approve of.

In other words, they looked like thousands, hell, millions of American girls out there running around today, listening to watered down pablum foisted on them by a rapacious, corporate-bottom-line-dominated music industry as "good music", for which they pay entirely too much of their loving parents' money, and to which they will constantly shake way too much of what Nature gave them–even under the vigilant eyes of long-suffering school staff members.

Yep, American girls. From the soles of their sneakers to the hijabs covering their hair.

Oh, right. Did I mention that these girls were Muslims? Well, they are. One from Afghanistan. One from Turkmenistan, and one from Sudan. At least two of them are political refugees.

You see, I teach in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation. One of the main reasons for this ethnic diversity is that there is a refugee center in my district. The center helps acclimate newcomers to the United States and then assists in resettling them; some in my district, some across the country.

So in this campaign season, when I hear some orange-skinned buffoon talking trash about Muslims, stirring up some of my fellow Americans with talk of the dangerous "foreign" *other*, it rarely squares with the reality I've witnessed first-hand getting to know Muslim families and the children they have sent to my school to get an education: something the kids tend to take for granted (because, you know, they're kids, and hey, kids don't change). Something for which their parents have sacrificed in ways that I, a native-born American descendant of a myriad of immigrant families, can scarcely imagine.

(And it ought to go without saying that this truth holds for the countless Latino families I've known over the years as well.)

I'm not saying they're saints. I'm saying they're people. And they're here out of choice. Whether we like that or whether we don't, they're raising their kids here. And guess what? These kids get more American every day. Regardless of where their birth certificate says they're from.

Just something to think about, as we kick into the final leg of this excruciating election season.

Oh, come on. You didn't think this piece was gonna be just me grousing about kids having lousy taste in music, did ya?

(And they do, but that's really beside the point.)

Seems an appropriate way to tie it all together.

See you in two weeks, with the sordid tale of John the Painter!

23 June 2021

Hunter's War


 

Stephen Hunter’s new novel, Basil’s War, dropped in early May, published by Mysterious Press.  Later in the month, Book Passage put together a video interview, with Steve and Doug Preston.  You can check it out here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmz0D1o8e_E

 

Basil’s War is a lot of fun, kind of a John Buchan send-up, with a lot of derring-do and Brit insouciance.  The net gain for me, though, was to lead me back to some of Hunter’s earlier stuff.  My first experience of Hunter was Hot Springs, which is a doozy, but as often happens when you run into somebody new to you, who’s got back-list, you start at the beginning.  I picked up The Master Sniper, his début thriller, and the spell was cast.

 


Hunter hit his stride in the 1990’s, Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Black Light, and Time to Hunt.  Not that he’s fallen off since, but going back and picking these books up again, after an absence, you find your earlier enthusiasm  reinforced, even while you notice different things, and for different reasons. 

 

We know our strengths, as writers, and we naturally play to them.  One of Hunter’s surpassing gifts is a feel for the physical, an ability to read the room, or the landscape, and adjust to threat posture.  John McPhee wrote a terrific book about Bill Bradley, the college ball player, called A Sense of Where You Are, a reference to kinesthetics.  An athlete will know his position on the court, the geometry of the game.  Hunter is fluent in setting up a physical description.  You don’t need a schematic.  You inhabit that space. 

 


The gunfight in the darkened tattoo parlor, in Dirty White Boys.  One of the most astonishing set-pieces in anything I’ve ever read.  It’s told with multiple POV, and the guys in the dark, with the gun flashes blowing up their night vision, can’t triangulate each other’s position.  But the reader is never disoriented.  You can feel the physicality, the geometry, the ground shifting under your feet.

 

OK, the guns.  It’s true that you can’t talk about Hunter without talking about guns.  Black Light is very much about guns; so is Time to Hunt.  Bullet weight, point of aim, subsonics, and the rest.  It’s all pertinent, mind.  The gun that kills Earl, in the cornfield – or the gun they think killed Earl – is a .38 Super.  A real gunfighter’s weapon, Bob Lee points out: Dillinger carried one.  But not that common, not in 1955, not in Arkansas.  You’d likely find a lot of GI guns, surplus .45’s left over from the war, but that hot caliber?  It sticks in Bob Lee’s mind, an anomaly.  And he’s right, of course. 

 


Somebody once asked Hunter, couldn’t you get rid of all that gun crap?  Which reminds me of a story about Tony Hillerman.  He was shopping the first of the Leaphorn books, The Blessing Way, and one agent he sent it to said she thought it was good, but there was an awful lot of that Indian crap. 

 

Hunter says he was reading about The Wild Bunch, and it turned out you couldn’t get blanks to cycle reliably in a .45 auto, but blanks would work in a .38 Super, which were readily available in Mexico.  Armed with this piece of movie lore, the first thing Hunter does is go on GunBroker and see if he can’t find one.  I did the same thing, me.  I have to say, your .38 Super’s a damn good gun.  Anyway, that’s how come it turns up in Black Light, and later on in Havana.  Writers are magpies, stealing bright things. 

 


So.  I took a trip down memory lane.  I also, however, unreservedly recommend Basil’s War.  It’s mischievous, for one, not something I generally associate with Hunter’s books.  And it’s a puzzle.  (Alan Turing, brought in from Bletchley Park, has an extended cameo.)  I’d almost call it a lark.  Hunter clearly had fun with it.  I did, too.

22 June 2021

How Assumptions Can Affect Your Writing


I'm under a time crunch, so I'm recycling a column I wrote in 2015, with a few changes, including some new examples. It's about how assumptions can impact your writing and be used in it. I hope you find it helpful. 

There's a famous episode in the original version of TV's The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger (the late, great Tony Randall) appears as his own attorney in court. Under Felix's questioning, a witness testifies that she assumed something, at which point Felix interrupts her, grabs a blackboard (conveniently sitting right there in the courtroom), and says, "You should never assume because when you ASSUME"picture him writing the word in all caps on the blackboard"you make an ass of you and me." Picture him now circling the ass, then the u, then the me. It's a wonderful scene (available on YouTube here) that makes a good point about assumptions. Problem is, people often don't realize when they're making assumptions.

Never ASSUME!
Take the simple moist towelette. You know, the little damp napkin you get in rib joints and other messy places to help you clean up. The towelette comes in a little square paper wrapper. And on the back are instructions: Tear open and use.

How helpful.

Tear open packet and use.
Whoever wrote those instructions assumed you know what the towelette is for and how to use it. Why the writer then figured you needed to be told to actually use the darn thing is beyond me, but what's clear is that an assumption was made. At least this assumption is funny. But assumptions can also be dangerous.


I recall visiting family when my oldest niece was twelve. She was going to make her own lunch for the first time. Her mom was proud, said she knew the kid could handle it, and left the room. My niece picked up a can of something, placed it in a bowl, set that bowl in the microwave, closed the door, and was about to turn on the microwave when I screamed, "No! You'll burn the house down." She was quite surprised because the can's instructions had said to put the contents in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for a certain time period. The instruction-writer had assumed my niece would know to open the can and pour the contents into a bowl, not put the can itself inside the microwave. Ah, assumptions.

They also can be a bane of fiction writers. I once wrote a short story in which a character was given a pie and she remarked that she knew she'd love it since she adored blueberry pie. A member of my critique group said, "She hasn't cut it open. How can she know it's blueberry?" I had pictured the pie with a lattice crust so the character could see the inside, but that information hadn't made it onto the page. I just assumed the reader knew my intentions. Tsk tsk tsk.

I often see assumptions in the novels and stories I edit for other authors. They know their plots so well, they assume they've told or shown the reader everything necessary for their scenes to make sense. Alas, that's not always the case, which is why it's always good to have an editor or beta reader who can point out when assumptions have weaseled their way in.

But assumptions can also be helpful in stories. We know that people wrongly assume things all the time, so it's believable when characters assume things, too. For instance, in my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, three men are murdered in New Jersey, one dressed as Santa, one as Frosty the Snowman, and one as the Easter Bunny. Assuming the men's costumes were relevant to their deaths, Santa decides Jersey is too dangerous this year; he's not coming for Christmas. That assumption sets the stage for my sleuth (the head of everything magical that happens in NJ) to investigate the murders and try to save Christmas. 

Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In my story "Bug Appétit" from the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a con man tries to finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. When his mark starts talking about the meal, he doesn't pay attention. He assumes it doesn't matter what she is going to say about the food, and that assumption comes back to bite him in the butt. 

Another example about how assumptions can play out comes from my story "James," published earlier this year in the anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. A rock star returns home for a family funeral and stops by his old best friend's home. The old friend is now married to the rock star's ex-girlfriend. After some conversation, the rock star thinks his old friends, who he hasn't seen in decades, need some help, and he can be the one to help them. He invites them to dinner the next day but asks his ex to come a little early so they can talk privately. She assumes he wants to get back together. That assumption kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, does that mean assumptions are a good thing or a bad thing? Felix Unger cautions us to "never assume." I think that's good writing advice. Keep an eye out for assumptions worming their way unintentionally into your stories and novels. But as for plotting, let your characters assume away. And then let them face the consequences.

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?


Remember when you started dating? I was shy in high school, and talking to girls was much harder than any test I ever took in a classroom. Except physics.

If I could get beyond the first few sentences– throw the first strike, so to speak– I'd be all right. It took me a long time to get those first few sentences down, though.

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

We all have a list of our favoirte opening lines, and we probably agree on many of them. The first few lines of a story or novel are crucial because they need to make the reader keep reading. That's even more important now than it was years ago because we have so many other distractions. If someone doesn't like your book– which he's reading on his phone– he'll switch to email or social media, and you're gone.

Openings should accomplish several things.

Getting the reader's attention is first, of course, but there are other concerns, too.

An opening should establish the ground rules, how the writer is telling the story and how the reader should make sense of it. That means showcasing the style, especially the tone, mood, and point of view. It should introduce the protagonist and antagonist as soon as possible. If the story is in first-person, it's reasonable to assume that the narrator is the protagonist.

The opening should introduce the basic conflict or problem. If it doesn't do that, at least give the impression that something is "wrong," a dissonance that will become important as we keep reading.

That's a lot to demand of a few words, isn't it? Look at how some writers accomplish all these thngs.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

John D. MacDonald sets a tone to open Darker Than Amber. He implies a setting (If there's a bridge, we're near water, so maybe the narrator is fishing. At any rate, he and his companions are outdoors.). We wonder who dropped the girl and why he did it. MacDonald has given us the basic mystery and conflict.

"I poisoned your drink."

This is how Duane Swierczynski introduces "The Blonde." We are probably in a bar, and the conflict is clear. The narrator wants to live, so he (presumably a male) needs the antidote. Who is this blonde, and why has she poisoned this particular person? Curious? I know I am.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe, Madeline Miller's retelling of The Odyssey, begins with these words. We wonder what particular word Circe has in mind… and who coiined it. We know The Odyssey, so we expect certain other characters to appear eventually, too.

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan probably begins on an airplane. Why is the flight attendant crying? Is the plane going to crash? The tone makes me want to know more about the person who phrases the observation this way, too.

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

This is from my own The Whammer Jammers. We know what kevlar is, so Hendrix is a police officer. He's worn kevlar before and now he's facing a dangerous situation, maybe a raid? Notice that the last two examples are in present tense, too.

MacDonald's book appeared in 1966 and Miller's only three years ago. Some things don't change.

Your opening should begin to set up your ending, too. That's easier than it sounds. If you're writing a romance, your reader already expects that the lovers will end up together. If you're writing a mystery, we expect to find a solution. If you can put a clue in immediately, that's even better because your reader may overlook it while she or he is getting used to the rules of engagement. Sometimes, you can repeat a line or phrase from the beginning at the end to give structural closure, too, like finishing a song on the tonic. 

All the examples I gave are opening sentences, but the "brilliant first sentence" quest may be a trap. DO NOT use a gimmick. Readers will catch you and feel manipulated. They won't like it and they'll stop reading. A gimmick makes it hard to move on without a jarring shift. 

Instead of obsessing over one great line, give yourself a paragraph or even a page to get things rolling. If you can suggest that there's trouble in River City, you're fine. The characters and setting will help you show more and find your rhythm and tone. 

The best advice I can give is to open your first draft whenever and wherever you want. Tell your story. When you know the plot, setting, and characters more fully, you can find the best way in. Then go back and rewrite your opening when you know the best place to start. My last revision and polish is usually on the opening when I have everything else in place. When I'm finding my way, I often write lots of back-story at the beginning, too. I will cut or move most of it when I revise, but it gives me direction. 

Go back and look at my title and opening paragraph. See what I did?

20 June 2021

Wicked Plots


Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot book cover

I’ve been reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, recommended by my friend/editor/teacher Sharon. The title, of course, is a double entendre as is its book-withn-a-book, Crib.

One of the characters confides she’s the type who, five minutes into a movie, figures out the plot. Mind racing ahead, I often do the same. Unlike her character, I generally keep it to myself until the show is over.

The same technique may work on The Plot. The author plays fair sprinkling numerous clues. By the halfway point, I grew certain where the story was headed, and every passing page convinces me I’m on the right track. We shall see.

Jacob Finch Bonner

Korelitz raises issues about plagiarism and ‘stealing’ stories. Her protagonist agonizes the unique plot of his bestseller was glommed from someone who managed to get himself killed, although characters and setting and words are all the author’s. The plot, however, is so unusual, it defies categorization within the seven basic plot lines we constantly hear about. Hence the accusation of stealing from a dead man who, it turns out, acquired the plot elsewhere. In today’s tender sensitivities atmosphere, the protagonist committed the ultimate appropriation sin.

Frey, Glass, and Mortenson

Korelitz’s beset author isn’t in the same league as a half dozen infamous authors she mentions who either plagiarized or falsified narratives. Some such as James Frey and Greg Mortenson bounced back, barely affected, and to a lesser degree, Stephen Glass at least arrested his descent into infamy.

Kosiński and Rosenblat

Jerzy Kosiński (The Painted Bird) is a different matter for me. Like Herman Rosenblat (Angel at the Fence), he was a Polish WW-II survivor. Also like Rosenblat, he combined fiction with reality, sometimes difficult to tell which was which. It would be fairer to describe their books as embellished memoirs or fictionalized biographies.

Jerzy Kosiński

Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, believes the taint of scandal brought about Kosiński’s death. His suicide note read, “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.”

Demidenko and Hegemann

Occasionally writers who falsify (e.g, Helen Darville a.k.a Helen Demidenko) or plagiarize (e.g, Helene Hegemann) are rewarded for their deceit. How they win prizes after their false narratives are exposed and Laura Ingalls Wilder falls victim to #CancelCulture escapes me.

Konrad Kujau

The Hitler Diaries took hubris, but Konrad Kujau was pretty certain Adolf wasn’t likely to pop up in Buenos Aires, Brasília, or São Paulo and say, “Hallo? Entschuldigung…”

Clifford Irving

For sheer audacity, it’s hard to beat Clifford Irving, because Howard Hughes, as far as anyone knew, was very much alive. And he did indeed pop up in Acapulco or Houston or somewhere and say, “Hello? Excuse me,” not that anyone believed him at first. And then… And then after he wrote a 1981 explication called The Hoax, Irving sued the movie company because the resulting film was too, well, hoaxy. Damn, that took nerve.

Charrière Castaneda

Please excuse me. I must return to writing my fictionalized memoir. Kindly ignore any perceived exaggerations, embellishments, or inconsistencies you may notice about my life amongst the Goajira and Yaqui…

19 June 2021

Moonlight & Misadventure


  

As some of you might've heard, Canadian writer and editor Judy Penz Sheluk released a new crime anthology yesterday called Moonlight & Misadventure: 20 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. This is the third of her Superior Shores Press mystery anthologies--the first was The Best Laid Plans in 2019, the second was Heartbreaks & Half-truths in 2020. It's been my honor to have a connection to all three books: I wrote a cover blurb for the first and I have stories in both the second and third. And although I'm fond of all three anthologies, I'm especially pleased with the stories in M&M.

 

As for the title, which is also the theme, not all the criminal activity in these stories happen at night, but much of it does, and all the stories are connected in some way with the moon. As for misadventures, there are plenty of those, which is as it should be. If everything goes exactly as planned, where's the fun? (I seem to recall that in each episode of Mission: Impossible, the mission should have been impossible because circumstances managed to screw it up every time. But the team somehow came out okay in the end.)

Back to the topic. I wanted to mention at least a few of the twenty stories in Moonlight & Misadventure, so I chose three written by longtime friends of mine. For what it's worth, here are some observations about their stories:

"A Currency of Wishes" by Kate Fellowes. This one starts off with a guy trying to go straight and a pestering uncle trying to talk him into a get-rich-quick heist. Throw in a woman who's interested in the guy but who doesn't know about the uncle and the possible theft, and the tension starts building. It's one of those stories where nothing is crystal clear until the end, and at that point everything comes together in a way that (as Aristotle said) is both unexpected and inevitable. You'll like it.

"Strawberry Moon" by Judy Penz Sheluk. A young lady on her way back from a camping trip has to cross over from Canada to the U.S. The problem is, if you're trying to cross a border in a mystery story, you can be pretty sure there's going to be trouble with the border guards. This suspenseful story, a little shorter than most of those in the book, is another that packs a great punch in the final few paragraphs. Since this is also the editor's story, it needed to be a good one, and it is.

"Crown Jewel" by Joseph S. Walker. Joe Walker is no stranger to mystery anthologies, and I think his story here is one of the best in the book. It begins with Keenan Beech's twin brother Xavier cheating and stealing from him, and when Keenan tries to get back what was stolen he meets a group a lot more devious than the two Beech boys, and meaner too. This tale has fascinating characters, plenty of crimes and threats and double-crosses, some interesting information about an unusual hobby, and plot twists galore. The kind of story I like to read!

And if you want to see the kind of story I like to write, my contribution to this anthology is called "Reunions." It starts off with two passengers on a domestic airline flight, neither of whom know each other. They meet in an unusual way, chat for awhile, and then, when the flight's over, go their separate ways. Any reader of course knows their lives will probably intersect again in some way, but over the course of the story I've included what I hope are enough plot reversals to keep things interesting.

One quick note: It probably won't surprise you to know that the idea for my story--a random meeting of two travelers who later reconnect--came from a personal experience (as so many ideas do). In this case I was flying home once on an IBM business trip to Atlanta and got into a conversation with the guy sitting beside me on the flight. We didn't talk long, but we exchanged names and a few pleasantries before we landed and parted company, and the following day we unexpectedly wound up sitting at a conference table together for a planning meeting at a downtown bank. In real life, this wound up being nothing more than a couple of pleasantly surprised travelers, but in my story the two businessmen re-meet under far different conditions, and with far different results.

Anyhow, these are only a fifth of the stories in this book, and I can honestly tell you I enjoyed them all. I think you will too.


 Thanks, Judy, for letting me join the party, and congratulations on another fine mystery/crime anthology!



18 June 2021

Still Writing in the Dark


In my April 2019 SleuthSayers’ posting, I mentioned how writers evolve. Most of this posting is a repeat of what was posted before.

When I began writing novels, I made detailed outlines and after completing the books, I saw I always deviated from the outline to make the story work. No problem. I also wrote a detailed synopsis of each book to satisfy agent/editor/publisher.

That was then. Now, I begin with a character with a problem. Add setting, time and a couple conflicts listed in sketchy notes so I don't forget. Sometimes the character walks off in another direction and the sketchy notes are ignored. I follow the character and write what he/she says and does.

Writing in the dark. I'm not alone in this. Better writers have been doing this for a while. Me, only recently. When it is time to get back to Lucien Caye, to rejoin his world, go back to 1951, I put him in motion and tag along. I miss him and that world so it is great to be back. Same with my other series characters.

I follow in the footsteps of James Sallis and Dean Wesley Smith and many other good writers.
James Sallis – DRIVE (made into a movie with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan out of this novel), the Lew Griffin New Orleans novels – THE LONG-LEGGED FLY, BLACK HORNET, MOTH, BLUE BOTTLE, EYE OF THE CRICKET, GHOST OF A FLEA – and many other novels, books of poetry, non-fiction books, and essays.

Sallis explains "After years of writing the well-made story," he became disaffected and bored and if he was bored, possible his readers would be bored. He sometimes goes back to Raymond Chandler's – when in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. He decided to challenge himself and improvise.

Sallis says, "I would start with a scene. I would start with a bit of conversation, with a plot point and would see where it took me. And I would try to surprise myself." He goes to to explain writers go every way with their writing, some have to have it all clocked out and some can't do that. There is a danger to all creative work. Sallis adds how writing this way can be like throwing yourself off a cliff.

LINK to Sallis interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuXCz2gv3pc

Dean Wesley Smith has over a hundred published novels and more than 17 million copies of his books in print. Dean wrote a book about this: WRITING INTO THE DARK: HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL WITHOUT AN OUTLINE.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-into-Dark-without-Outline-ebook/dp/B00XIPANX8/

Dean says it will start with a scene or conversation and he sees where it takes him looking for a surprise. When addressing writing into the dark, he explains, "To be vital you have to change." He goes on to remind us, "You are the God of your book."

Here is a great interview of Dean Wesley Smith:
LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zjl66ZnrC7g/

I still like starting with the story running and catching up with the characters. Endings can be a surprise and when it works, it is like the satisfaction a homicide detective gets when the killer looks you in the eye and confesses.

That's all for now.

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

17 June 2021

All's Well That Ends in a Story


Since everything that happens could be turned into a crime, every crime can be used again, and everyone is a potential character, or at least part of a character.  And every story has another way it can be told.  (You should hear some of the ones I've been told at the pen.  Or at the laundromat.)

Ripped from the internet:


Well, there's a game that's hard to resist:

Gone With the Wind: Spoiled rich girl pines for married KKK guy.  Marries another guy for spite and 2 others for money.  She keeps the plantation.  (Historical Romance.  Warning:  Contains material that some might find offensive.)
The Fountainhead:  Spoiled rich girl pines for lusty architect, but marries 2 men for their power in order to keep him unsuccessful, because if she can't have what she wants, she'll destroy it.  (Warning:  Contains material so inane that some people have mistaken it for a political manifesto.)  

NOTE:  I'm beginning to see a pattern here...  

SECOND NOTE:  Speaking of political manifestos: 

The Communist Manifesto:  Classic apocalyptic thriller of good vs. evil, in which the proletariat rises up against the evil capitalists in a violent apocalyptic revolution. The resulting dictatorship of the proletariat causes the state, family and religion to wither away and die, and everyone lives freely in an endless paradise on earth.  (Claims scientific basis, but really based on German philosophy.)

NOTES:  Very poor experiential track record. Much easier to read than Das Kapital. Also suffers from what is now the libertarian mindset in that it assumes two "facts" that have never been in evidence when it comes to human beings: (1) that we always act rationally and (2) that we always care about their neighbors. 

Emile, or On Education:  Influential treatise on the education of young children, whose author put each one of his five children into an orphanage. 

1984:  The World State keeps everyone in line in a totalitarian oppression based on constant fear and propaganda.  

Brave New World:  The World State keeps everyone in line through unlimited sex, drugs, and entertainment.  

NOTE:  What is it with these patterns?

And back we go to spoiled rich girls:

The Razor's Edge:  Spoiled rich girl falls for dreamy new age guy, but marries for money.  Later kills his fiancee; is surprised when he doesn't appreciate it. He gets enlightened; she doesn't.

To be fair, there are also a whole list of novels / books / stories / plays / movies about spoiled rich guys:

Eugene OneginAnna Karenina, etc., there's a shoal of Russian characters, all interchangeable.
Adam BedeTess of the d'UrbervillesEast Lynne, and every other Victorian seducer.  
But let's let Tregorin in The Seagull sum it all up for all of them: 

The plot for the short story: a young girl... happy and free, like a gull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom.

The Southern version is different:  from Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury to Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:  A post Civil War Southern gentleman, neurotic, introspective, supposedly intelligent, spends his time whining and drinking, but almost never screwing.  (Which is why his sister / fiancee / childhood sweetheart ends up in bed with the roughest trade she can find.)

On to other things:

Finnegan's Wake:  An Irish wake (in case you don't know, endless drinking & talking) and a resurrection (or maybe not).
NOTE:  It helps if you read it aloud, while drinking Irish whiskey, with an Irish accent and a high pitched voice (like Joyce's, below).  Or you could read Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, and discover the joys of jacking in as well.  (Look it up.)  


Finnegan's Wake is best known for its polyglot language that includes English, Latin, Gaelic, and some words that he made up himself.  The opening line:  "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs" - can give you the impression that you understand it.  How about this?

"Wold Forrester Farley who, in deesperation of deispiration at the diasporation of his diesparation, was found of the round of the sound of the lound of the Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk."  

Speaking of interesting words, perhaps invented, the other day a friend of mine mispronounced "speculum" as "spacula".  I replied that a spacula was the offspring of Dracula and a kitchen utensil, which is exactly what a speculum often feels like.  

Ah, vampires:

The Twilight Series:  A handsome vampire likes to play with his food.

As John Franklin once lectured in Laskin, SD, in a hopefully soon to be finished story by yours truly


"Continental European vampires are predators, pure and simple. But the fictional vampires of England and America are like cats:  they play with their food. And only Americans would come up with vampires that not only play with their food, not only fall in love with it, but want to have sex with it.  That and American Pie makes one suspicious of American kitchens."

BLATANT SELF PROMOTION:

My story "Collateral Damage" is in Murderous Ink Press' Crimeucopia: We're All Animals Under the Skin.  Available at Amazon.

And my story "The Sweet Life" will be in the July/August Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  That's my 30th story in AHMM!  Thank you to the late, great Cathleen Jordan and the current editor, Linda Landrigan!  


16 June 2021

Keeping You in Suspense


 

I was thinking recently about suspense and the fact that many people these days seem to use the terms "suspense fiction" and "mystery fiction" interchangeably.  There is an overlap, but they are not identical.

I think we can all take a swing at defining mystery, but what is suspense fiction, exactly?

Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, famously differentiated between surprise and suspense.  If two men are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off under it, we are surprised.  But if we see the bomb beforehand and hear it ticking as the men sit casually talking about the weather -- that's suspense.

Worldcat defines suspense fiction as "works whose prime purpose is to produce a feeling of frightened anticipation."  While any author of stories or novels wants the reader to feel impelled to keep reading, with suspense fiction that nervous urge is the main - or at least a main - goal.  

As I said, though, not all crime fiction is focused on suspense.  But does all suspense fiction involve crime? 

A few years ago I asked on Facebook and again on the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list for suggestions of great suspense short stories that do not involve crime.  It led to some interesting discussions.  First of all, I received a lot of suggestions that were not short stories: novels, plays, and even a poem.  ("Casey at the Bat" certainly is suspenseful, although it doesn't have that "frightened" aspect Worldcat mentions.) 

But about half of the actual stories that were suggested were subject to arguments.  Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is great suspense fiction, but is it  crime fiction?  Apparently what happens in it is legal in that community.


Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of a man sentenced to die for sabotage during a war, but since he is a civilian, does that make it a crime rather than a war story?

Someone argued that Edgar Allan Poe's  "Murders in the Rue Morgue" qualifies and I scoffed that at first.  But I'm damned if the nominator didn't have a point.  By most definitions what occurs in the story is not a crime.*  However, since it unquestionably a detective story I am leaving it off my list.

The biggest category of non-crime suspense story I could find is people-versus-nature, which makes sense.  See, for example, Jack London's "To Build A Fire."  


Another tale in that category is "The Drover's Wife," by the great Australian writer Henry Lawson.  His simple tale involves a ranch woman left alone with her young son, a dog... and, as it turns out, a very large snake.  An Australian actress named Leah Purcell has recently adapted it into a feminist novel, play, and movie, none of which I have yet encountered.

What you see below is my personal compilation of Great Suspense Stories Without Crimes.  Please add your own suggestions.

Bierce, Ambrose - "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

DuMaurier, Daphne - "The Birds."

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins - "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Jackson, Shirley - "The Lottery."

Kinsella, W.P. - "Pius Blindman is Coming Home."

London, Jack - "To Build A Fire."

Lawson, Henry - "The Drover's Wife."

Saki - "The Open Window."

By the way, there was a great radio show called Suspense and Bob and Ray used to mock it with... Anxiety!

* Although I argue otherwise in my short story "The Street of the Dead House."


15 June 2021

Cleveland


    A few years ago, my family and I visited Cleveland. We spent a great day wandering around inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I had a good meat at a nearby bar my wife learned about through an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. If I swing back to Cleveland, I'd like to take a little time and visit the James A. Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery. I've been fascinated by Garfield since I read the biography, Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. 

    The larger point is that while I have visited Cleveland and enjoyed myself, I have not even scratched the surface of the city. I will, therefore, happily defer to anyone who might be in a better position to speak to today's question. What has made Cleveland a hotbed for the development of search and seizure law? 

    On June 10, 1968, the United States Supreme court handed down Terry v. Ohio. The case's facts are straightforward. A Cleveland police officer stopped a man he suspected was about to commit a robbery and patted him down. The officer found a gun. The Supreme Court recognized the right of a police officer, with reasonable suspicion based on his or her training and experience, to detain and frisk a suspect. The stop and frisk was born. 

    The pre-Terry world had two categories of police/citizen contact. A voluntary encounter--an officer has a conversation with a civilian--and an arrest. Terry v. Ohio introduced the concept of a "detention." Consider the consequences. If the police saw a masked man holding a prybar and shining a flashlight outside your house at midnight, the Terry decision is the officer's authority to detain him for an investigation. 

    Consider the consequences. If a misguided police officer wants to harass someone, the Terry decision provides a lower bar for the opportunity. (Chief Justice Warren discussed this issue at the time of the decision.) 

    The Supreme Court gave this round to the police. 

    I can't count the number of cases I've looked at which were some variation of a Terry stop. 

    But Cleveland cases go the other way as well. Mapp v. Ohio was a win for defendants. 

    On May 23rd, 1957, Cleveland police got a tip that a bombing suspect might be at the apartment of Dolly Mapp. The police knocked and asked permission to enter. Mapp refused to admit them without a search warrant. 

    Later, more police returned. They forced their way inside the apartment. The police showed Mapp a piece of paper. She grabbed it and stuffed the "warrant" inside her dress. The police recovered the fake search warrant. The handcuffed Mapp and searched her apartment. They found the suspect, some gambling paraphernalia and a small stack of pornographic books. Mapp claimed an earlier tenant had left the magazines. 

    After Mapp refused to testify at the trial of gambling higher-ups, she was prosecuted for the pornography. She was convicted even though the search warrant was never produced. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed. Although the search warrant's validity was sketchy, the police had not used the kind of force which "shocks the conscience." This holding was in line with existing precedent. 

    The U.S. Supreme Court pivoted. They held that "all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is...inadmissible in state court." 

    There may be other ways to treat police misconduct, civil liability or increased training and supervision. The court, however, held that without the exclusionary rule, the Fourth Amendment's protections would merely be "form words" that would be "valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties."

    That round to the defendants (Or, perhaps to those who want to be secure in their homes, safe from unreasonable government intrusion.)

    Mapp and Terry will be included on most lists of landmark 4th Amendment cases. Both changed the trajectory of the way police operate in this country. Perhaps it's the water, the mix of Lake Erie with a splash of Cuyahoga River which makes the city ripe for 4th Amendment litigation. Maybe we need a resident to weigh in on this one. This much remains clear. Regardless of where they are set, criminal legal thrillers and police procedurals all carry a little bit of Cleveland around in them. 

    Until next time.