Where Stories Come From: Outside and In

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” which is not a question with a straightforward answer. So many facts, ideas, memories, glimpses, pet peeves, dreams, loves, and outrages weave themselves into a story, the truthful answer would be “everywhere.” For people who aren’t writers and haven’t engaged with the word-collage building that is storywriting, that is not an insightful or satisfactory answer. Certainly, it gives no aid to the questioner whose unspoken follow-up may be “and how can I do it?”

I’ve identified the seeds of two of my recent stories. One was prompted by an external source and the other, by my own experience. Being a great believer in the ability of the unconscious mind to put things together, I confess these are only the influences I’m aware of!

“Saving the Indiana Dae”

Published in issue #10 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, along with works by my friends and writing acquaintances Steve Liskow, Barb Goffman, and Liz Zelvin, with seven others I look forward to meeting. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Wall Street wheeler-dealer who buys and refurbishes a permanently beached ship in Cape May, N.J., turning it into a quirky vacation cottage. Stunning. But then the trouble starts. Is the ship haunted? Is he losing his grip?

The long-ago origin of this story was a John Gardner writing prompt my writers’ group worked on. It asked us to plot a ghost story with certain elements. We had such fun with this cooperative exercise that we all went home and wrote the story, each one very different, but involving a vacation cottage, Cape May, a crusty 1800s sea captain, and (for two of us, a very fowl-mouthed parrot [sorry about the pun]). The eventual story in BCMM takes off from that early effort, though the hero has considerably more agency, and the existence of the ghost is still in question. I suppose the message is, whatever fires your engine, let it rip!

“A Hungarian Christmas”

If you’re familiar with the hilarious books about Eloise, the six-year-old girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel you may remember how she was always angling to get herself a present. In this story, published in the Mystery Magazine December issue, along with works from several fellow-members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the unsuspecting Bert and his fiancée Veronika are anticipating the holidays. She’s helpfully explained to him that, as a Hungarian, she should be given a special present on December 6, Hungarian Christmas. (This is a scam that actually works, don’t ask me how I know.) Maybe it was taking the Zoom class on precious gems last year that inspired it, or the several notable jewel robberies I’d read about recently, but Bert decides his special gift should be something from Tiffany’s. As you can predict, mayhem ensues.

I set the story in northern New Jersey, close to Manhattan, but not in it, so that the scale of the police presence and Bert and Veronika’s living arrangements wouldn’t present word-count busting logistical difficulties. Because I believe most complicated problems/investigations benefit from a team approach, I gave her a loving family—older brothers defending her and Bert’s interests.

To quote a lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the late Stephen Sondheim, “And a happy ending of course.” Hey, it’s the holidays.

For Your Bookshelf

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. (I still don’t understand some of this one.)

Cut Your Losses?

How much time should you invest in a book that you really, really don’t like? In The Guardian recently, novelist Mark Billingham is quoted as saying, “twenty pages.” Every time this issue comes up in social media (or Amazon reviews) a few extraordinarily patient people say, “I can’t not finish a book. I have to read to the end, no matter what.” If so, you’re in company with almost forty percent of readers, while only about 16 percent give up as early as Billingham.

I used to always read to the end, but now . . . life is short. Every year, I read and review (or start to read) 60-plus mysteries and thrillers. I try to give new and unfamiliar authors a chance, if the premise sounds good. Alas, one or two books a year simply are not ready for prime time. If the book came by way of the author and not a publicist, I thank them and say I won’t be able to write a review after all.

If the story is good, even if the execution isn’t quite up to par, I will keep reading. But if a book is boring, I stop. I figure if it can’t hold my interest when I am excited by the premise and predisposed to read and like it, that’s a fail.

If I encounter numerous typographical and grammar errors in the first few pages, I stop. Because such slip-ups distract readers, authors should care about them. A lot. As people who purportedly care about words, they should know the difference between diffuse and defuse, between pique, peak, and peek. And on and on.

These days, an occasional typo crops up even in books from big publishing houses, and I speculate that some homonym errors are due to spellcheck’s “help.” But if it looks as if the author couldn’t be bothered, I can’t help but wonder what else wasn’t attended to. Research? Historical references? Geography? The way guns work? The million little details that distinguish an immersive reading experience from a first draft.

I reached the “throwing the book across the room” stage of frustration recently with an audiobook. (No, I did not throw my iPod.) That was a first. Usually, having somebody read to me is pure pleasure. But this book, by a popular author, just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the whiny main character. I didn’t like the bratty children she was nanny for. And, a teenage daughter was about to enter the story, and I just knew she’d be insufferable.

So I did something I’ve never done before: I went to the Amazon one-star reviews to see if I was the problem, or did other readers suffer too? Oh, boy. Got an eyeful, including a lot of complaints about the ending. So I did something else I’ve never done before; I found a website where the ending was discussed in detail. If, as they say, “getting there is half the fun,” not only did I not want the journey, but I didn’t want to arrive at that particular ending. Saved myself another ten hours of listening time. What about you? When you don’t like a book, do you stick with it or cut your losses?

The Ubiquitous Plants

Plants are all around us, so it’s no wonder that crime stories occasionally take advantage of what’s right at hand and make them part of a story. The fascinating history of poisons is just one example, and the history of my favorite poisoner Mithradates Eupator is well worth a read. As a recent post mentioned, analysis of plant matter is a frequent part of crime investigations too—what pollen or bit of plant material is present that shouldn’t be? (Writers of ITV’s Vera frequently include such clues.)

How digested is a victim’s plant-based stomach contents? How did authors use that peat bog (Val McDermid) or giant witch elm (Tana French) to conceal a body? A reader commenting thatRuth Ware’s Turn of the Key was too far-fetched asked, “Whoever heard of a poison garden?” This is a person who doesn’t know her Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite Hawthorne stories! (Maybe the commenter knows her Marvel Comics heir, Monica Rappaccini.)

There’s another side to planting plant evidence too. Rather than obscuring the method, timing, and place of a crime, plants can be used proactively, to send a message, not hide it. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers takes on this topic explicitly, and a young couple lets specific flowers say what they are reluctant to express directly. (How Victorian!) As one reviewer said, it’s “a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words.”

For a tutorial on the practice of floriography, remnants of which have survived thousands of years, Amazon has at least two well received books (The Complete Language of Flowers and Floriography), neither of which I’ve read. Both are well illustrated, though some others are not, which is a big disadvantage when you want to see whatever it is so you can describe it.

Online sources helped me decide which flowers a character deeply sorry about the way he’d treated his late wife and son should choose. He took pale pink roses to his wife’s grave and to their son’s, asphodel, the flower of regret.

Roses have many meanings including as a symbol for silence or secrecy (“sub rosa”) dating to the myths of ancient Greece. Red roses are associated with both courage and romantic love. Yellow roses, aside from the Texas association, symbolize friendship and new beginnings. White roses are linked to innocence and purity, explaining their frequent appearance in bridal bouquets. Pale pink roses, as in my story, are linked to sympathy. Have one character give another a black rose and you’ve sent a message.

Floriography has been practiced for thousands of years, and even though your readers may not know the details, carefully selecting which flowers you use in a story adds emotional resonance, and for the cognoscenti, a grace note of delight. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling have used flowers in this way. Ophelia’s flowers included rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (sorrow), columbines (affection), and daisies (innocence and purity). New meanings keep being added to our store of floriography too. One of the most compelling of recent years was London’s public art installation to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. Each of the 888,246 red ceramic poppies represented a British or colonial service member who died in the Great War. If you study the pictures, you’ll never forget the association.

poppy poppies Beefeater London
A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

What Blood Stains Tell Us

Lisa Black, a guest of honor at the recent Killer Nashville conference, is not only the popular author of several crime series, she’s a certified crime scene analyst. She began her talk about blood stains by reminding us that blood accounts for about eight percent of a person’s body weight, about 5-6 liters for men and 4-5 liters for women. In real numbers, this is about 1.2 to 1.5 gallons. A lot to clean up. 

If you’re writing about a crime scene and want to fling some blood around, these are the types of blood stains Black noted (here’s a good article for more detail and some pictures):

  • Passive stains, or drips. A droplet’s size will depend in part on what kind of surface it dropped onto (absorbent or not) and how far the drop fell.
  • Transfer stains—that is, swipes or wipes. People (or, conceivably, pets) get blood on themselves and transfer it from the place of origin to another surface—the bloody handprint by the door kind of thing. I once had a housepainter with a long ponytail, which was constantly getting in the newly painted surface. When he’d whip his head around, I got transfer stains on my furniture, woodwork, and everything else!
  • Projected or impact stains—a bloodstain cause by arterial blood may show an up-and-down pattern due to the pumping of the heart; a castoff stain comes from swinging a bloody object, possibly the weapon, and can reveal information about the object as well as the number of strikes (the first strike is “free”—the weapon isn’t bloody yet); splash or drip patterns of a liquid dripping into another liquid; and the very fine droplets of high-velocity spatter.

As blood flies around your crime scene, the tail on the droplet tells investigators which direction it was traveling and, therefore, which direction it came from. Investigators painstakingly recreate in three dimensions the “area of convergence,” using the shapes and tails of all the drops to calculate angles. This may be a little hard to visualize (the best pictures I found appear to be copyrighted), but at this link, which is full of useful information, you’ll find an illustration of convergence under the heading “Examination of a bloody crime scene is a slow and methodical procedures.” Amen to that!

If your character doesn’t see any blood, never fear. There are tools to bring it into view. Amido black is a general protein stain that makes fingerprints, footprints, and other patterns visible. Anyone familiar with Gone Girl came to appreciate the magic of Luminol, which is specific to blood, and especially useful in detecting minute amounts after attempted clean-ups. It works through a reaction with the iron in hemoglobin.

One last tidbit from Black that might come in handy as you write: Bleach destroys DNA. Plus, as Oyinkan Braithwaite began her award-winning novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.”

Guest Blog: Author Claire Matturro

The new book by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing), deals with society’s treatment of “difficult” females. Husbands and fathers may no longer have carte blanche to exile their prickly wives and daughters to mental hospitals. Yet, institutions like Claire and Penny’s fictional Talbot School for Girls persist. I’ll be reviewing Wayward Girls here in early October. Here’s what Claire says about the inspiration for this important book:

As noted in a CrimeFictionLover.com review, Wayward Girls is a “book with a strong sense of purpose.” It’s a loud warning about the oversight and accountability needed by delinquent/troubled teen facilities, boarding schools, and “wilderness schools,” because abuses continue to occur in such places, and adults continue to disbelieve the kids who cry out in protest.

What led Penny Koepsel and me to write the book does not arise so much from our own experiences at boarding school, but in the history of a Texas wilderness school for troubled teens, Artesia Hall. In the early 1970s, at that remote locale northeast of Houston, a 17-year-old girl ingested poison. Rather than immediately seeking medical treatment for the girl, the school’s owner allegedly had her put into a straightjacket and tied to a chair. She later died in hospital. Previously, escaped students had told of abuse, including a “GI bath,” where they were plunged naked into a trash can full of ice water and scrubbed with a wire brush. No one believed them. They were, after all, troubled. Kids who lied.

But these kids were telling the truth. After the teenager died and more students escaped to speak of dire mistreatment, officials finally listened. The State closed Artesia Hall.

Decades later, I—along with other former students from a Florida boarding school—reconnected as we organized a reunion. Our boarding school had existed at the same time as Artesia Hall, and both schools closed the same year. Yet they were as different as the sun and the moon. As reunion activities developed, Penny Koepsel, a psychologist from Texas, and I—a lawyer from Florida—met and formed a fast friendship. We had been students at the Florida boarding school, but at different times.

At the reunion, while groups of former students told tales from our school days, not one of us mentioned abuse, poison, rape, or anything approaching a GI bath. Few of us had ever even heard of Artesia Hall. However, Penny, a Texan, knew about the notorious school, and told us of the horrors there.

One of us said, “Let’s write a book!” Perhaps it was too much wine, or too much hubris, but the idea took hold. After all, I had already authored a series of legal thrillers published by HarperCollins, and Penny’s short stories and poems had been published in literary journals.

That’s how Wayward Girls came to be. The book deals head on with a sexual predator who targets petite teen girls at the fictional Talbot School for Girls and incorporates some of the horrors officials came finally to believe about the Texas wilderness school. Wayward Girls weaves in some of the playful hijinks from our Florida boarding school experience too.

While fictional, Wayward Girls stands as a warning. Schools for so-called wayward kids should not be unlicensed or easily licensed, and they must have strict oversight. Above all, adults should listen when kids speak up about abuse.

Historical Mysteries II

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The journal of Mystery Readers International, which includes essays on various authors’ response to a theme, compiled by Janet Rudolph, are consistent interesting and insightful. I reviewed part 1 of a pair of issues on historical mysteries a few months ago. The second one was released not long ago. The writers represent multiple points of view and provide lots to think about for other writers as well as readers looking to discover new authors they may like.

In that last category, I’m itching to read some of the work of Joe Gores after Catherine Accardi’s tempting essay in the summer 2021 issue. Similarly, David Clark opens the door on a fascinating period when he discusses Michael Russell’s Stefan Gillespie novels set in the nascent nation of Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, when the politics were rough and convoluted.

One of the benefits a well written historical novel can bestow is to bring the murky events and people of past decades into sharp relief enabling readers to see their choices and, one hopes, learn from them (without getting preached at!). As Harald Gilbers writes in the current issue, “The fact that a society with a high cultural level can descend into barbarism is a warning example and I think it is important to tell people how this could happen.” Similarly, Rebecca Cantrell writes about her World War II novels, “People always ask me how ordinary Germans could have allowed this to happen. How democracy could have been so fragile. How hatred and violence could have triumphed over truth and reason. How a civilized country could run to its own destruction.” Good questions worth thinking about. Then the kicker: “No one asks me that now.”

In “Should I tinker with the facts?” Jim Fusilli describes the tension between absolute accuracy and storytelling, when in one of his novels, reversing the timing of two events would enable a stronger narrative. “But doing so would make the story seem less real to me, making it more a work of speculative fiction.” When he wrote this, he was still deciding how to handle this dilemma. Gilbers, by contrast, has made his choice. “I am not allowed to change history for the sake of my narrative.” He see his challenge as recreating a world for his characters that nearly exactly matches what people at the time faced .

What these diverse authors and their stories have in common, is something all historical mystery writers face. As Clare Whitfield put it so well, “The events might be far away, but the people are much closer than you think.”

How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

Author and former U.S. Army forensic pathologist (and professional Santa) Bradley Harper led a fascinating seminar at the recent Killer Nashville conference that provided a bit of “the inside story” (you should pardon the expression) on autopsies and crime scene investigations.

His opening analogy was an interesting digression with a distinguished pedigree. He said Aristotle maintained there are only three arguments: Blame, Values, and Choice. Fixing blame is what forensics tries to do, and blame always relates to events that happened in the past tense. Values, he said, are always argued in the present tense (“we believe in. . .”), and choices are argued in the future tense. When two people are arguing, if one is using the past tense (blame), and the other is using present or future tense, they will never agree. This is a handy trick to remember next time you’re setting up a fictional confrontation!

Forensics is even older than Aristotle. It began in China about 3000 years ago when a murder occurred, with the assailant presumed to be part of a particular guard unit. The magistrate asked each guard member to lay his sword on a table. Then they waited. Before long, one and only one of the swords was covered with flies, attracted by the invisible traces of blood still on the sword.

Fast-forward to 19th century France and the efforts of numerous men of science to bring scientific methods to the analysis and systematization of crime investigations. Advances in photography, fingerprinting, and the standardization of autopsy procedures elevated the field. These pioneers’ accomplishments soon found their way into literature, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And then there was Sherlock Holmes. In 1910, a devoted Holmes fan, Frenchman Edmond Locard, set up the world’s first crime lab. You’ll remember Locard as the man who developed the exchange principle: “every contact leaves a trace.”

So what happens with in an autopsy? Harper said the steps include: verify the deceased’s identity (preferably with a thumbprint); take a full-body x-ray; make an external examination; U.S. pathologists use a Y incision and remove the top of the skull to reveal the internal organs and brain, any of which may be taken out for further analysis if necessary; analyze stomach contents, blood, urine, spinal fluid, the vitreous humor of the eye, etc; and take lots of pictures throughout.

Read More:
The Three Basic Issues (from Thank You for Arguing)
The Virtual Autopsy – explore online!
The Exchange Principle
Autopsy: A Screenwriter’s Guide
The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

Planting Evidence

A larger overlap than you might think exists between plant science and crime investigation. This confluence was suggested at the recent Killer Nashville conference by Jane Bock, Professor Emeritus in the University of Colorado’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

For writers, this field opens new possibilities for developing clues and those arcane hooks that make a story unique. Clues based on plant science can be crucial to a case: Ask Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby largely on evidence related to the wood used to construct a homemade ladder (still controversial, and there are true believers on both sides).

Botanists get involved in crime investigations for any number of reasons: they’re asked to identify plant-based controlled substances; they’re asked to identify plant material found on a corpse’s body or clothing or at the crime scene; they’re asked to help identify plant cells (from fruits, vegetables, seeds) found inside a body, in the g.i. track. This reveals not only what the victim ate, but whether it was harmful or poisonous. Where in the gastrointestinal tract the cells are found can help determine time-of-death. If they’re still in the stomach, death probably occurred no more than two hours after a meal. If they’ve moved on, well, let’s not discuss it.

Forensic botanists also are expected to know what grows where and when. A flower out of season suggests it came from somewhere else. (An episode of the BBC mystery Vera used this type of clue.) Do a suspect’s skin, fingernails, clothing, shoes, vehicle, or home contain traces of the same plant material found on the victim? The more anomalous the material is to when and where it’s found, the more likely suspect and victim are connected.

Dr. Bock and her U of C-Boulder colleague, David Norris, published a textbook on this topic in 2012, based on the approximately 50 cases they worked on. Each has served as an expert witness for both the prosecution and the defense in homicide cases. If you want to dig into this further, other more recent resources continue to pursue these seeds of crime.

Further Reading:
Murder Most Florid, by Dr. Mark Spencer (2019)
Plants and Crime: A Green Mystique Forensic Mystery Companion by Alan Graham (2021)

“Shunning” Books by Women? What FB Users Said

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Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post based in part on findings of research done by Nielsen Book Research. As you may know, the Nielsen organization is “a leading global data and analytics company that provides a holistic and objective understanding of the media industry.” This particular research was for a new book by MA Sieghart, titled The Authority Gap (reviewed here), which explores the social conditioning and unconscious bias that belittles and undermines women. Half the population is a lot of people to not take seriously.

The author investigated the many guises in which bias occurs, but of most interest to me were her findings on how authors are treated. Much past research has dealt with women authors’ difficulties, which culminate in reduced readership. Using the Nielsen research and other sources, Sieghart found considerable evidence that these difficulties continue and that men “shun” books by women. I actually think this may be less prevalent in the crime and mystery genre, but the research was dealt with best-selling authors, all genres.

I’m gratified that my post it received abundant Facebook likes from both men and women. But in the comments, sharp differences emerged. In general, women cited specific experiences they’d had; many men denied the problem and questioned the data.

Several women (teachers) said prejudices against women authors begin at an early age, and others said they identify themselves with initials, not their names, as a result. One woman said, “A while back, a large writers’ group I belong to researched this from several angles, and concluded that in most genres, male authors significantly outsold female. Possibly the roughest moment was a friend’s husband admitting to his writer wife that he too avoided books by women because he assumed they wouldn’t interest him.” That “he assumed” is what author Sieghart is trying to get at.

Some men said they don’t pay any attention to the author’s gender. I hope that’s true. But if all that interests them are stories about former Navy SEALS with advanced martial arts skills who like to blow things up, following their preferences will naturally lead to one type of author. One said he didn’t know any women who write the action thrillers he prefers (a woman author responded by suggesting one of her books). Sieghart’s point is that readers who read books by only one gender (however that happens) miss out on understanding a lot of what goes on in the world.

Apparently, several men didn’t bother to read my post, much less The Guardian article it was based on, both of which described the research. One skeptical man asked, “Is this based on any factual research?” Similarly, men wrote, “I don’t take much stock in people’s surveys or stats,” and “I think these surveys/polls are utter nonsense.” The Nielsen research wasn’t a poll; it was an analysis of actual buying patterns.

Mysteriously, one man said he didn’t see that the problem is about gender. “Most crime fiction is written by women, so are you suggesting men don’t read crime? They certainly do.” No, the post did not suggest anything like that at all.

The ad feminem argument also surfaced: “One issue is that society conditions men to expect female authors to spend most of the time excoriating men. So why bother?”

And, this clincher: “Who cares? Move on. Write because you love writing.” Not because you want to be read or because it’s important to you that your books bring in the income that will let you eat, put a roof over your head, and buy shoes for the kids.

Heartening, by contrast, was some men’s unqualified support for women authors, like: “There are way too many high quality female authors to ignore. Especially in the mystery genre.” And “I love English mysteries, and many of the best writers are women.”

Still? Again? Men Shunning Women Authors

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Periodically authors get motivated to revisit  a persistent question, Why Won’t Men Read Their Books? It’s pretty discouraging to think that a big chunk of the population who might read a mystery/crime book, who say that’s their favorite genre to read, will dismiss out of hand the one they’re working!

An article by the gender-masking MA Sieghart in last Sunday’s Guardian newspaper takes up the issue once again. “Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.” Sieghart set about to document that for her new book, The Authority Gap, through a survey she commissioned from Nielsen Book Research. The result? “Men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.”

Take top-selling female authors. Less than one reader in five is male. Then take top-selling male authors. Almost half (45%) of their readers are women. Clearly, women are much more comfortable reading across gender than men are. A question of quality, you ask? No, Sieghart says, pointing out that women authored nine of the ten best-selling literary novels of 2017.

I’ve puzzled over this a lot in previous posts. Now Sieghart takes the issue beyond a marketing conundrum, suggesting a more serious problem underneath. By cutting themselves off from the ideas, imaginations, experiences, and perspectives of women, as expressed in the books they write, men limit their ability to understand half the world. It’s a familiar-sounding argument from another domain when she says, as a result, men “will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default.” The stories women tell—and the women themselves—will be niche, when in reality, they are not niche stories; they are human stories.