Seven Ways Genre Fiction Sharpens Your Writing Skills

Draft - Sebastien Wiertz

photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Authors reluctant to tackle a “real” novel and who choose to write “less demanding” mystery/romance/fantasy fiction may be in for a surprise. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor—among the detectives, with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright.

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.

Write on!

 

How to Write: In Chair, Door Closed, Daily Goal

Office

Where’s my Muse? photo: Lisa Risager, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft focuses on how he became a writer and the process of becoming one is full of insights worth rereading.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. I find that when a phrase or scene comes too easily, almost unconsciously, it may be that my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page. As stunning as most of the hit novel Gone Girl was—a web of lies if ever there was one—the ending fell unexpectedly flat, and King has put his finger on the reason. In working out her denouement, author Gillian Flynn strayed from the truth of her characters.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

This post appeared here in slightly different form three years ago. King’s advice is evergreen.

Why Crime/Thriller/Mystery Novels Fall Short: Part 2

red pencil, grammar, comma

photo: Martijn Nijenhuls, Creative Commons license

Authors of crime/thriller/mystery novel have to keep track of a lot. They must develop those pesky clues, forge a logic chain with no missing links, and avoid too-convenient coincidences. They must convey everything readers need to know without actually giving the punch line away or making it irritatingly obvious information is being withheld. No wonder early drafts of a book can be full of problems!

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the common plot and character pitfalls (the “thinking” pitfalls) I find in the dozens of crime/thriller/mystery novels  I review each year. This post concentrates on typical problems found in the actual writing.

Writing Pitfalls (the Biggest Ones)

  • Clichés in language and gesture – at least five chapters in a recently-read thriller ended with a character setting his/her mouth/jaw in a firm line. Using a cliché to express a thought is a writer’s shortcut. While certain characters may speak in clichés, if that’s their thing, narratives should struggle for freshness. That helps characters and settings feel unique, not like cardboard cutouts.
  • Unartful explanations—Readers often need background information—about politics, finance, weapons, a character’s training, whatever—but indigestible chunks of it that read like a resume or briefing paper feel amateurish. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. Smith,” is hardly better.
  • Over-explaining – Example: A Chinese scientist who’s volunteered to become a CIA source explains to an agent how his country’s government has hurt “many people who deserve better,” including his father. The agent immediately thinks, “His motivation appeared to be revenge for his father’s mistreatment at the hands of the Chinese government.” Duh. Then, in case the reader doesn’t get it yet, the author continues with what is actually a very good way of underscoring the point (good because it adds new information, the agent’s judgment): “He’d take revenge as a motivator any day” and explains why. This would have been just fine if that clunky over-explanation were edited out.
  • Mixed or inept metaphors – Example: “Trying to learn the ropes had XX feeling like a fish out of water.” I can’t picture that at all. Can you? Here’s a simple, effective one: “Out of [his police] uniform he just looked like an impatient kid waiting for his father.” I see this clearly.
  • Ending each chapter with a cheesy cliffhanger. Example: “My God! XX thought. The Americans will never know what hit them.” Actually, in this book, they will. Here’s a better one: “She closes her book and shuts her eyes to look up at the sun, unaware of her two observers.” Menacing, not manipulative.
  • General sloppiness – I’ve said enough about typos in my book reviews. They suggest a lack of care. Here is other evidence of it: homonym problems (hoard instead of horde, rein instead of reign, desert instead of dessert, and on and on); changing the name of a person or place, but not catching all the uses of the original name (“find and replace,” please); and of course, distracting factual errors.
  • Lack of support matter – OK, maybe I’m crazy, but I believe quite a few thrillers would be improved by the inclusion of tailored supporting material. For example, maps that show the principal places mentioned in the novel (I admit to a pro-map bias here), lists of acronyms and abbreviations, especially for novels involving multiple international agencies, lists of characters and how they fit into the story, and so on. The goal should be to bring readers in to the circle of cognoscenti, not shut them out.

Working out the plot of a story and developing the characters involved are completely different tasks than effectively writing the whole thing down, and rushing into print rarely serves the material—or the reader—well. I hate to see a good plot ruined by weak presentation!

*****Euphoria

orchid-leis

photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Lily King – Based on events in the life of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is the story of the warping of personality and relationships that occurs when a person is immersed in an alien culture. What survives, what does not.

In the 1930s, British anthropologist Andrew Bankson has lived a little too long, a little too isolated in a remote region of the Territory of New Guinea, studying the Kiona culture. A chance meeting with a married couple—fellow anthropologists Schuyler Fenwick, an Australian, and his successfully published wife, American Nell Stone—is an overpowering dose of the familiar, of kinship. It’s a lifeline for him. “I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter,” he writes from a later period, after a successful career.

Bankson is so grateful to talk to these other scientists, to speak English, to gossip, to have common reference points, he giddily persuades them to take on the study of a tribe father along the Sepik River that will place them at least within a few hours’ journey of the Kiona settlement. Physically and emotionally damaged from a few months with the ultra-violent Mumbanyo tribe, the couple also needs a change.

In Nell, Bankson finds a colleague with whom he can discuss, probe, and explore theories about the Kiona and even the entire purpose of anthropological research. Fen isn’t interested. He’s living off Nell’s grant money, not researching in any real sense, not documenting, not writing. He’s occupied in being jealous of his wife, perfecting his skills at self-justification, and letting his moral rudder erode.

Bankson learns much from Nell. His reminiscences about those heady days are interspersed with excerpts from her journal of the same time. Together, these sources create “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis,” said reviewer Emily Eakin in the New York Times.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is King’s descriptions of Nell’s methods—the kinds of questions she asks, the ways she elicits information, her nonjudgmental attitude, her respect. (Would she had been more judgmental about her husband.) The title refers to what she calls the deceptive moment of clarity “When you think you finally have a handle on the place. . . the briefest, purest euphoria.”

At one point, Nell writes in her journal: “You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words . . .words aren’t always the most reliable thing.” Yet, in advancing within their scientific community, words are exactly what they depend on. What words to choose and how to arrange them appears to be a Stone/Fenwick/Bankson breakthrough.

King does a terrific job evoking a sense of place, a thin fog of menace, and the cultures in which the scientists immerse themselves. When it was published in 2014, the book won the Kirkus Prize and the New England Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named a “best book of the year” by nearly 20 news outlets.

In real life, by the time Mead reached New Guinea, she was married to New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune and had published her popular and influential Coming of Age in Samoa. New Guinea research colleague Gregory Bateson became Mead’s third husband, and many of the details of the fictional Bankson’s life—his education, the deaths of his two brothers—mirror Gregory’s, but the plot of this book takes a quite different turn. It’s as if the author, musing on the three scientists stranded in the jungle, said to herself, “What if . . .?”

Jane Austen’s Dark Side

birdcages

photo: Kirk Maddison, creative commons license

Mikita Brottman recently wrote in The American Scholar about the virtues of going deeply into a narrow subject, such as Jane Austen did in her fictional world. How often do we feel that in the sweep of novels that cover centuries and generations we have lost the particular that made the years and the individuals vivid and unique? How much more can be revealed by Austen and her magnifying glass for social mores? Stuff that’s not so pretty, Brottman thinks.

Austen is a popular fan fiction subject, with 1,266 entries, pastiches, and spinoffs on the Archive of Our Own fanfic website. The author, dead almost 200 years, is on coffee mugs, and board books, coloring books, air fresheners, iPhone covers, and teapot cookies. (This may be the place to recall that when I showed up at the local post office wearing my “I ♥ Mr. Darcy” t-shirt, the clerk said, “Oh, that must be your husband!” “No, Pride and Prejudice.” “Is that a tv show?”) All these commercial incarnations underscore the bright, romantic view of Janeworld.

What was Jane really saying?

Brottman’s favorite novel Austen novel these days is Mansfield Park, with its self-effacing heroine, Fanny Price. MP has long been thought Austen’s “problem novel” and “difficult” (interesting critique from another fan here). Over time, the other, better-known novels have become less romantic for Brottman because their heroines’ world was so small—an accurate portrayal for the times. Austen herself likened her writing to “painting with a ‘fine brush’ on ‘a little bit—two inches—of ivory.’” I’ll be interested to see what Whit Stillman does with Austen in his recently released movie, Love and Friendship.

While we may remember with deep nostalgia the innocence of our adolescent ideas about love and destiny, our visions of a rich and handsome partner, and our longing to move in a refined, elegant world (“someday, my prince will come”), maybe it’s “time to give up on childhood fantasies,” says the fanfic author heleanna, who writes as The Butterfly Dreamer and has her own take on overcoming Mansfield Park’s constraints.

Below the surface of balls and calling cards, Austen is not romantic at all, Brottman believes, but rather “a very dark writer.” Under the taffeta and lace, “these well-bred young women are trapped like rats,” prisoners of rigid social rules and expectations. As some 150 years later poet Maya Angelou wrote about a different set of social constraints, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

(Brottman is a prolific author and cultural commentator. I’d like to read her brand new book The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison, published June 7.)

What a Character!

typewriter, writing

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.

My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!

Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.

I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.

Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.

Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction

  1. A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
  2. Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
  3. Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
  4. Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
  5. What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed  prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
  6. What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
  7. How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
  8. How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
  9. How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
  10. Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.

A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.

Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.

 

Guilty Pleasures: Plot

Dickens, writer

(photo: Alan Weir, creative commons license)

In this essay for The Guardian, John Mullan has laid bare a dirty secret I share with many of you. Why do we read fiction? Watch tv & movies? See plays? Plot.

“How we love plots—and how we look down our noses at them,” Mullan begins his essay. Sophisticates are supposed to prefer in-depth character studies, deep psychological explorations, wrenching perspectives on arid reality. I’m afraid I’ve never recovered from the childlike thrill of having a story read to me whose next installment almost made bedtime something to look forward to.

But in contemporary novels, says Mullan, “it sometimes seems that the delights of plot have been contracted out to genre fiction”—especially mysteries, thrillers, and the like. In other words, my favorites.

Of course, genre fiction with believable characters, plausible action, intriguing settings, and (my preference here) significant themes are more satisfying to read, for me it is still plot that makes them worth reading at all. “Yet nowadays we admit the enjoyment of plot as if it were a low kind of self-indulgence—irresistible but ignoble,” says Mullan. We recognize it is what makes us unable to put down certain books, “but not what we any longer expect of ‘serious fiction’” (my emphasis). However, as literary agent and author Donald Maass points out in Writing 21st Century Fiction, plots is more than “clever twists and turns [that] are only momentarily attention-grabbing.”

The many significant characters in the novels of Charles Dickens all turn out to be important to his ultimate plot, even when you don’t fully appreciate their role until the end. Though the drama may have been unfolding through a series of seeming digressions, every aspect is important to the ultimate outcome. This is quite different from presenting string of red herrings and random events. Or, as Mullan puts it, “Plot is what stops narrative being just one thing after another.”

The ending of the popular television series The Good Wife or, Mullan suggests, the evolution of Game of Thrones, appear to have abandoned the connecting thread of plot development for ad hoc-ery: “matters of ingenious improvisation rather than achieved design.” When viewers began to feel this during the six seasons of Lost, what was lost was their interest.

Must writers plan out every detail of plot development before they begin writing? Of course not. When I’m writing a story, I dump in all kinds of information that comes to me as potential plot elements. As I work toward the conclusion, some of these ideas are discarded and some minor points turn out to be essential to the final resolution. In that way, I retain the freshness of discovery, which I hope I can transmit to the reader, I have a rich array of clues and directions to draw upon, and I’ve laid the groundwork for the ending.

Sometimes that groundwork needs to be reworked and strengthened, the reader reminded obliquely of a particular point here and there, but the aim is to achieve a coherent whole in the end. And for some of those points to surprise readers, to smash their expectations head-on and veer off in a different direction, but one totally supported by the plot elements that have gone before.

*****The Children Act

justice

(photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license)

By Ian McEwan -There may be a reason justice is blind, and, in this novel, a woman. Fiona Maye is a British High Court family division judge who must decide, Solomon-like, some of the more wrenching issues of our time. How to proceed when an Englishwoman fears her five-year-old daughter will be spirited away to Morocco by her strict Muslim father, then is? What to do when a pair of conjoined twins must be separated or both will die, but if they are separated, one will surely die? The hospital urgently wants to separate them, but the devoutly Catholic parents refuse to sanction murder. Everyone in reach of the news media has an opinion about these cases, but only Fiona’s counts. She must be blind to distractions, keeping uppermost The Children Act of 1989, “which declares in its opening lines for the primacy of the child’s welfare.”

The Lord Chief Justice describes her as a woman with “Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.” But that’s insufficient on the home front. Fiona’s husband has announced his desire to have an affair with a much-younger woman and doesn’t see why that should disrupt their marriage. Fiona’s legendary dispassionate judgment counts for nothing in this situation and is replaced by pure emotion. She throws him out and changes the locks—even though she knows the law wouldn’t back her up in this.

Into her roiling personal situation comes a new case, a 17-year-old son of Jehovah’s Witnesses has contracted a severe leukemia that will kill him unless he has a blood transfusion, which his religion disallows. His parents refuse. He refuses, too, though he’s not quite yet at the age of majority, so within Fiona’s purview. The hospital says it can save him. To establish whether the teenager’s views are what has been purported or whether he has been unduly influenced by his parents and church elders, she visits him in his sick-bed, and from there the pavers from Good Intentions Roadworks take over.

The Children Act is relatively short for a novel today, about two-thirds the typical length—“a svelte novel as crisp and spotless as a priest’s collar” says Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. He also seems to believe it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it’s larger than that. Its subject is intractable dilemmas, hierarchies of belief, and unintended consequences. It is the unnavigable intersection between law and blind faith. So there we have it: faith and justice, each blind to the other, fighting primacy, blood everywhere on the ground.

McEwan is a beautiful writer, with a compelling yet accessible style, even for the weighty issues explored here. This is a portion of his simple, vivid description of Adam Henry, the boy needing the transfusion: “It was a long thin face, ghoulishly pale, but beautiful, with crescents of bruised purple fading delicately to white under the eyes, and full lips that appeared purplish too in the intense light. The eyes themselves looked violet and were huge.”

McEwan gives us realistic characters grappling with significant problems that require them to probe every inch of their humanity and interrogate every motivation. Something to both think about and feel. And when I reached the end, I had to wonder whether he meant the last word of the book’s title as a noun, or in Adam Henry’s case, is it a verb?

Deadly Ink: “Get Your Facts Straight”

crime-scene-30112_640A panel at last weekend’s Deadly Ink 2015 conference represented a spectrum of views about the research lengths mystery writers go to. At the “as factual as possible” end of the spectrum was K.B. Inglee, a writer of historical mysteries who is also a history museum docent and reenactor (talk about living your research!), closely followed by Kim Kash, who seeks a realistic recreation of Ocean City, Maryland, where her fictitious characters and stories play and play out. Setting her mysteries there began when she wrote a tour guide for the city, a compilation of facts and contacts that has since served her well.

Tim Hall, who writes cozy-ish mysteries set on Long Island said his kind of story is so character-driven that what’s needed is enough research to make sure they remain internally consistent. No blue eyes on page 30 and brown eyes 100 pages later. Similarly, S.A. Solomon does enough research to ensure plausibility. A big gaffe makes readers start to doubt the whole story—a disaster for mystery.

Surprisingly, the one author of “alternative universe” mysteries, Roberta Rogow, said the science fiction audience is one of the most demanding. Any would-be sci-fi authors who hope they can “just make it up” soon learn otherwise. That pleasure is reserved for another genre: fantasy. And even there, devoted readers patrol for consistency.

A key benefit of research the panelists agreed is that it helps the writer avoid stereotypes, generalities, and clichés in their characters, places, and actions. When you know the exact particulars of something, you can describe it with greater exactitude. “I took the bus” becomes “I caught the packed bus from the Weekly Breeze office uptown near the Delaware border, down to DaVinci’s around Fourteenth Street. There was only standing room on the bus, it being dinner hour with everybody heading out for crabs, fries on the boardwalk, and happy-hour drinks.” (from Kim Kash’s Ocean City Cover-up).

Although Wikipedia can provide a quick overview of a topic for writers, it’s more useful in terms of pointing them in the right direction for further research. Hyperlocal resources are readily available online, though there’s no substitute for visiting the place being written about. Several panelists are devotees of “just talking to people.” While people’s time is valuable, especially that of professionals (cops, investigators, medical examiner staff), these writers have found that all kinds of people—most of whom seem to be would-be novelists themselves!—are delighted to share their knowledge.

Recent books by these Deadly Ink panelists:

  • K.B. Inglee – Her story “The Devil’s Quote” leads off a 2015 story collection And All Our Yesterdays—mystery and crime through the ages
  • Kim Kash – Her other Ocean City mystery is Ocean City Lowdown, and the book that started it all: Ocean City: A Guide to Maryland’s Seaside Resort
  • Tim Hall – He grew up in the Long Island area he writes about, but still has to keep up with the changes! Dead Stock was his first book
  • S.A. Solomon – Read her fine story “Live for Today,” published in New Jersey Noir, published by Akashic Books
  • Roberta Rogow – Her most recent series involves an alternative history of the Island of Manatas (Manhattan), volume 3 of which is Mischief in Manatas

****Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore

books, bookshelves, library

(photo: PromoMadrid, creative commons license)

By Robin Sloan, read by Ari Fliakos – This book was on many “best books of 2012” lists, and it’s tremendously entertaining. The narrator, Clay Jannon, is an unemployed web marketer who finds work as the sole night shift clerk at a strange San Francisco bookstore. The store stocks little current or popular inventory and attracts few customers; however, it has masses of arcane, one-of-a-kind reading matter that is not for sale, merely borrowed. The borrowers are regulars, a “community of people who orbit the store like strange moons,” taking out volume after volume of the dusty materials. Clay has been warned not to read these texts, and any of you who recall Bluebeard’s wife know what’s coming next.

Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there — the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.

I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines — and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.

The prohibited books are in code.

As he’s starting to suspect more going on than meets the eye, Clay meets Kat Potente, an expert in data visualization working for Google, and, determined to impress her, he creates a computer model of the store. When powerful computers match the book borrowing records against the store model, strange patterns appear. Together Clay and Kat embark on a quest to figure out the store’s coded secrets. They soon encounter a strange 500-year-old society of academics, the Unbroken Spine.

Against the society’s hundreds of years’ experience with OK (Google-speak for Old Knowledge) is arrayed all the creativity and computing power of the Googleplex, along with Clay’s colorful friends, and kindly Mr. Penumbra himself. The book “dexterously tackles the intersection between old technologies and new with a novel that is part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem” said Roxane Gay in The New York Times (though I disagree with her “requiem”). The plot isn’t really the point—it’s a flight of fancy—but the juxtapositions of old and new raise significant questions about the enduring power of print, about the value of the search as well as the answer.

On its journey, the novel gently skewers some of the greater pretensions of Silicon Valley and those who feverishly embrace—and reject—technology. But in a good way. Numerous times while listening, I laughed out loud. The reading by Ari Fliakos was breathless and eager, a perfect voice for the 20-something Clay. Since I listened to the audio version, I missed the clever touch that the book cover glows in the dark.