Seasoning Dinner with Crime: Second Course

Forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger of John Jay College of Criminal Law spoke to the NY chapter of Mystery Writers of America after dinner last week. Yesterday, I summarized his points about staging a homicide scene and undoing a murder—both aspects of criminality that writers may find useful in their diabolical plotting. Here’s more.

Foreign Objects

Schlesinger has written about foreign object insertions, a topic he considered not suitable to delve into in a postprandial talk, except to say that about half are not discovered until autopsy and the moths found in the throats of The Silence of the Lambs killer’s victims were not realistic. Why not? I wonder. He’s published an article on this topic, and if you’re super-curious, you can access the full article here.

Serial and Sexual Homicides

Serial and sexual homicides often involve rituals and follow a pattern—a “signature.” The murder alone is not psychologically sufficient to fulfill the killer’s intent. Creating any kind of an elaborate crime scene tableau requires time, which increases the risk of apprehension. Taking this extra risk shows how important that aspect of the crime is to him.

Recall Douglas Preston’s true-crime book, The Monster of Florence, about a series of 16 (at least) murders that took place in north Italy between 1968 and 1985. The killer’s victims often had complicated wounds that would have taken some time to inflict, yet as I recall, the bodies were found in well frequented lovers’ lanes. It was a mystery how he got away with it for so long. (Preston’s book describes the horribly botched investigation masterminded by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Over the course of Mignini’s “investigation,” he prosecuted some 20 individuals, all of whom were subsequently acquitted. If his name rings a bell, Mignini was also responsible for the mishandling of the case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.)

But just because a serial killer has a signature, he may vary it occasionally, depending on circumstances. These variations crop up anywhere in the series of killings and can take many forms, making identification of all the victims in a challenge for your fictional investigator.

Psychopathic serial killers are typically of average intelligence, Schlesinger said, with Ted Bundy the exception that proves the rule. What they’re very smart about is masking their pathology. Maybe that’s why a killer’s neighbors and co-workers always say, “He seemed like such a normal average guy!”

Trends

Schlesinger pointed to several trends of interest to crime writers. Advances in emergency medicine that have helped save injured military personnel on the battlefield have been imported to our city hospitals. Many people whose injuries would have been fatal a few years ago now can be saved. That’s the good news, partly responsible for holding murder rates down.

The bad news is that, despite more police and better analytic techniques, only about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared by an arrest. It isn’t that the police aren’t doing a good job. Back when most murders occurred between people who knew each other, police investigations had something to go on. Today, the increases in random shootings, drive-by killings, drug killings, and gang warfare mean that, absent a confession, the responsible party is forever a question mark. And, they lack the dramatic possibilities of a 20-year feud between neighbors, a wronged lover, or jealous sibling.

Seasoning Dinner with Crime: First Course

The audience’s murder weapons are pen and keyboard, members of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. They came together last week to hear Louis Schlesinger, professor of psychology at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, present some of his insights as a forensic psychologist—very useful stuff for people who write crime stories.

Staging a Homicide Scene

He talked about “crime scene staging,” when killers try to make a murder look like something elsefor examples, as if the a victim died in a fire, in an auto accident, during a robbery, or by suicide.

About one in five domestic homicides is staged, the highest rate for any type of murder, Schlesinger said. Seems to me the main reason he could know that is that they aren’t staged very well. Consider how cleverly writer Gillian Flynn used the idea of staging in Gone Girl. Amy’s disappearance looked to be the result of a kidnapping after a pitched battle in her living room. But the physical evidence didn’t quite add up, so the detectives looked further. One drop of blood in the clean-looking kitchen prompted them to bring out the luminol, which revealed evidence of mopped-up blood. Clearly, something else entirely had gone on there. Of course, what really went on, the reader finds out only much later. A staging double-cross.

Only about five percent of single-victim homicides (not domestic) are staged, in part because of the greater likelihood of witnesses may make staging too difficult. Schlesinger’s studies have found no cases of serial sexual homicide that have been staged, in part because the offenders’ focus is not on misleading investigators, but on something else entirely.

“Undoing” a Murder

If staging is done to mislead the detectives, symbolic reversal—or “undoing”—is done, in a sense, to mislead the perpetrator. It’s a kind of bizarre coping strategy. Especially when a young child has been killed, a mother (usually) may try to reverse the death by tending to the baby, washing it, changing its clothing, psychologically telling herself she was a good, caring mother. Or, she might bandage the child’s injuries (to me, that’s especially creepy).

When the victim is not a child, symbolic reversal is rare, occurring in about one percent of cases. These acts may be as simple as covering the victim’s body, putting it on a sofa or bed, or putting a pillow underneath the victim’s head, for example. In a study of 975 homicides, 11 such cases were found, with 10 of the 11 offenders male and all of the victims female.

Unfortunately, the undoing, which suggests perpetrators’ guilt and remorse, came too late.

Tomorrow: Foreign Objects, Serial and Sexual Homicide, and What’s Trending

Photo: geralt from Pixabay

CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Is Somebody Following Me?

Crime-writers (and moviegoers) are attuned to that staple of adrenalin-pumping action, the car chase. It doesn’t matter whether the pursuit is from the perspective of the follower or the followee—“That red car’s been behind me since Cleveland!”—they can be fun to write and nerve-wracking to read or watch.

Alas, chases that are little more than special effects demo reels (thanks, Hollywood), bear little relationship to how actual people would behave and strain readers’ credulity. If your characters are ordinary citizens, they’re unlikely to notice they’re being followed in the first place. If they do notice, they won’t know what to do about it. You have to find the sweet spot between over-the-top demolition-derby mayhem and dull cluelessness.

This renodadsblog post, written by two former CIA operatives, gives some tips on how non-professionals can detect surveillance. It’s basic stuff, but if you’ve been on a steady diet of The Fast and the Furious franchise or reruns of The French Connection, and you want to get back in touch with the reactions of the typical American distracted driver, here you go!

Story characters can be followed on-foot too, of course. The Art of Manliness guide on What to Do If You’re Being Followed gives common-sense advice on detecting and eluding people following you—assuming they are everyday muggers and not trained espionage agents, of course.

 It all starts with being aware of your surroundings and policing your social media, two tactics your characters may—or may not—follow. Is there some reason your character is hyper-aware? Characters make mistakes (aren’t they fun?) but they also are resourceful.

This related post from last summer received lots of good feedbackt: Writing about Risky Encounters.

Photo: “Driving in my car” by de Luque, creative commons license CC BY-NC 2.0

First Line Mondays

First Line Mondays is an interesting Facebook group for authors. (Mostly) on Mondays, group members post the first sentence or two of the story they are currently reading. These posts are greeted with enthusiasm if other members have read the book and liked it, regardless of the power of those first words.

But your prospective publisher/agent/gatekeeper has not read the whole book, and its first line, page, chapter may be make-or-break.

Ridiculous though it seems that the first 20 words might affect the fate of a 95,000-word manuscript, that first line matters a lot. First Line Mondays gives you an easy way to compare a lot of them and see for yourself what you think works. Those first lines help ease the reader into the fictional dream, says Donald Maass.

Interestingly, many of the first lines come from books in genres and subgenres I don’t read in, and it seems different genres have different unwritten rules about how to launch a story. In the cozy genre, weather features prominently, Elmore Leonard notwithstanding. Having read quite a few of them now, I see why they are weak. Some stories attempt to plunge you into the scene with a line of excited dialog. “Oh, my god!” Georgianna exclaimed. “I never thought it would come to this!” But since you don’t know anything about Georgianna or the this it has come to, these fake-exciting beginnings may fall flat.

Here are some recent first lines I’ve posted:

  • “I watch you very day, walking past my flat on the way to the school drop-off, holding your older daughter’s hand, pushing the younger one along in the buggy.” – Envy, by Amanda Robson – a good intimation of what the book will be about.
  • “Arthur Darvish needed extra money so he went to the sperm bank.” No Happy Endings, by Angel Luis Colón. OK, it’s intriguing. There’s a certain kind of desperation in poor Arthur.
  • “I betrayed my sister while standing on the main stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a beaded Versace gown (borrowed) and five-inch stiletto heels (never worn again).” – Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister. A great first line because it opens up so many story possibilities, and hints a conflict.
  • “One thing about being in a recovery program, you meet the most interesting people.” – Richard Helms’s Paid in Spades. Now you’re looking forward to meeting some of them too.
  • “They passed through belts the color of mud, and belts the color of mustard, that ran directly across the stream.” The Surfacing by Cormac James. If you know this literary novel is about the far ice of the Arctic, the mud and mustard bode ill. Nice alliteration too.

Stephen King’s Opening Tricks

Stephen King says his openings are the doors he walked through to get into the story. Opening devices he uses frequently are to: put you in a precise location and time; identify the protagonist; address you (the reader) directly –  as “you”; use simple language and quotidian details, creating an easy tone; include something to provoke a vague anxiety (beyond his name on the cover!); and in some way invite you to listen to a story. Interestingly, King’s all-time favorite first line is from Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”

Photo: Felicity_Kate11 on Pixabay.

Did They Really Say That?

Making fictional dialog sounds like something people would actually say takes practice. Having spent so many years writing for think tanks, I have to be especially careful my characters don’t sound like they’re lecturing a roomful of dozing college students. As a result, a few lines of conversation can demand as much time and concentration as whole paragraphs of description.

Usually the key is subtraction, and you can get a master class on how few words dialog needs by reading Elmore Leonard. A guideline that should be emblazoned in neon, is “no tennis matches”! A conversational ball that goes back and forth, back and forth, each person responding to the other’s shot, is tedious. In real life, people change the subject, they answer a question with a question, they go off on a tangent, they reveal hidden agendas. In fiction, they can do this too, without real speech’s stumbling, imprecision, and grammatical tangles, like, you know?

But most of all, I try to make the conversation sound like anyone but me. Is the speaker male, female, old, young, ethnic, rich, poor, well educated or not, from the South, the Midwest, New England? Is the story set today or fifty years ago? What phrases, idioms, and slang does this character use?

Two New Tools

If you’re looking for insights into how people speak, the partnership between linguistics and Big Data provides some answers. Orin Hargraves at Visual Thesaurus has described Brigham Young University’s two new databases of conversation, based on dialog from English-language television and movies. TVCorpus has some 325 million words from 75,000 television comedies and dramas from 1950 to today. Movie Corpus compiles 200 million words from 25,000 movies from 1930 to 2019. These data sets let you compare British and American English, and the way speech patterns change over time.

I know, you’re thinking, screentalk isn’t how people really talk (though it’s better than it used to be). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the influence goes in the other direction! Would people really be so reflexively snarky and would casual conversation be so laden with profanity if television sitcoms and the movies hadn’t paved the way? And Hargraves cites research showing that movie-talk better matches how native English speaker think we speak than actual speech does.

However that relationship works, these databases are a fascinating way to learn about “very informal language,” which is probably what most of your characters speak. At the very least, you can use them to check for clichés and archaicisms or to devise language to fit a particular era.

I did a quick scan of the phrase “perfect crime,” and found the TV database has recorded its use  203 times—a lot of times by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Psych. Go figure.

(Meanwhile “go figure” appeared 427 times in the TV database, including a lot of “go figure it out,” while the movie database includes 224 examples, most of them like my standalone “Go figure.” Since the earliest use was from 1938, you could use it in a classic noir story without worrying you were introducing a 21st century expression.)

“Perfect crime” appeared 91 times in the film database, with the first usage recorded in a 1936 film titled The Case Against Mrs. Ames: “There is no perfect crime because there is no perfect lie.” Nice!

photo credit: Jon Seldman on Visual Hunt.com, creative commons license

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Resurrection on the Cutting-Room Floor

scissors, blood, editing
(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The first draft of one of my novels was 135,000 words—1.5 times what was remotely saleable. Since I didn’t plan on writing solely for myself, I couldn’t risk being thrown in the circular file before my doorstop even reach an editor’s desk! So I began to cut. In the many subsequent drafts and rewrites, I’ve always had one eye on shrinkability.

When my editor—the stellar Barb Goffman—suggested I beef the novel up in some areas, I knew we weren’t just talking addition, we were talking subtraction too. A number of characters were easy to jettison altogether, but a few that had to be trimmed still spoke to me. The three most promising I’ve turned into published short stories, something J. Todd Scott may have done with a character from High White Sun (a short story in, I believe, Mystery Tribune).

One character I didn’t want to lose is a murdered Roman priest who thinks his classic migraines are communications from God. Although his death remains in the novel, his backstory is repurposed in “The Penitent,” published last year in Bouchercon’s Passport to Murder.

A mafia fence launched his career by masterminding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston, a resume-enhancing crime unrelated to events in the novel. That story became “Above Suspicion,” appearing in the current issue (#26) of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Another priest, Anglican flavor this time, intervenes in an assault on my protagonist, no doubt saving her life. While this priest has only a minor role in the novel, his giddy nonstop talking charmed my beta- (or perhaps I should say gamma-) readers, and I worked him into a story—“What Saved Them”—published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

The transformation from novel excerpt to complete short story turned out not to be as easy as I expected, and each presented its own challenges. If you’re ever tempted to resurrect one of the darlings you’ve just killed, here’s what I learned.

Four Tips for Authors

1. If the characters involved in the short story remain in your novel (that is, if you haven’t gotten rid of them altogether), you need an eagle eye for continuity. You can’t have your character driving a Porsche in the story and relying on Uber in the story. More important, they cannot do anything in the story that would affect the action of the novel.

2. Originally, I’d engaged in vigorous head-hopping in the scene where the priest dies. I found I could park the novel’s point of view in the head of the assassin, yet write the short story from the priest’s perspective. Same events, two points of view. That was fun.

3. The story of the fence had a strong core from the get-go because of the extensive detail about the ISG theft. I wrote new backstory—waybackstory—about the character’s childhood in Fez. And of course more extensive setup and denouement.

4. OK, it’s fun, but is it a story? The Anglican priest was a character. His story had to be developed from scratch using the dialog I’d salvaged. But who was he? How would he behave? What changed for him? The rescue of the woman would plausibly have a long-term impact on him and it became a source of reflection, laying the groundwork for his subsequent actions.

Because you don’t have a blank page when you deal with bits excised from other works, there are many more than the customary limits on your degrees of authorial freedom. Whether the resurrected short stories prove useful in marketing or whether they are just good stories in their own right, you can feel good about creative recycling!

Finding the Core of Your Story

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px here, creative commons license

Now that Glimmer Train is winding down its publication schedule, I find myself returning to earlier issues to read the author interviews again. Sometimes I’m in the very wrestling match with a short story that these notable writers describe.

So it was with my recent return to the interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade (interviewed by Jeremiah Chamberlin, Issue #100, Fall 2017). Quade authored the prize-winning book of short stories, Night at the Fiestas and her work has been seen in “all the best places.”

Chamberlin commented on how Quade resists big epiphanies in her endings. “There are moments where the stories turn of shift,” he said, “but the characters don’t experience Joycean flashes of recognition.” Quade explained that she writes slowly, and it sometimes takes her “a long time to figure out what’s going to happen in a story.” She might write a long buildup, putting in lots of potential elements, in search of the one that will reveal what the story is truly about and therefore, how to end it. Ah. Like me, a pantser.

Once she takes hold of her ending, the core of the story, she trims away what isn’t necessary and can “write toward the ending.” She also eliminates any unnecessary rambling that comes after the ending. Perhaps she’d heeding Chekhov’s advice “to cross out the beginning and the end” of a story,” as unnecessary warm-up and (one hopes) unnecessary explaining. This is an exercise that would have improved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in my opinion, but Chekhov said to do it because “it is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Eliminating the temptation of those further thoughts also prevents an overly neat-and-tidy resolution. Trust your reader to get it, he might have said.

The heart of the story may lie in the backstory, in an unworked-out thought or subconscious association that needs to come forward into greater prominence. During Quade’s revision process, she might list all the characters, settings, and objects she’s put into the story so far and see whether she should be doing more with some of them. “That will often help me find my ending.” Or at least get her closer to it. Those people, places, things are in there because they hold meaning, even if she hasn’t clearly identified what it is yet. It isn’t, perhaps, their surface meaning, but some significance for the characters.

I just read a fine story by Simon Bestwick, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (Crimewave 13), in which a man’s lover is murdered, her flat trashed, and all the cheap souvenirs she bought from second-hand shops smashed. He exacts revenge on the men responsible for her death, dropping a few bits of broken china or glass on their bodies—not because these fragments held meaning for him, but because they meant something to her. Memorable.

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What Writers Know – Part 2

typing

Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Writers receive an endless stream of advice about what they are doing wrong (!) or could be doing better(!!). Since most of us can admit that we are not yet perfect, this firehose of negativity becomes wearing. Recently, I posted a few words of praise for what we get right. With a promise of more to come.

My thoughts are prompted by Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recently reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”  Let’s look at the second half of his list, plus my own #13.

Prepare to pat yourself on the back.

  1. We can punctuate! We know that (in the U.S.), the comma and the period go INside quotation marks, the colon and the semi go OUTside, and the question mark and exclamation mark, well, it depends. We know (and I admit to still be working on it) not to overuse the dash, we know to put commas before independent clauses and not dependent ones, and, if the brouhaha over the Oxford comma is ever resolved, we stand ready to hear the outcome. I’ll acknowledge sloppiness in first drafts I read regarding the need for commas before AND after people directly addressed: “I’m telling you, Mom, but you never listen”; in city-state pairs (Princeton, New Jersey, is a fine place); and around the year in month-day-year trios (December 7, 1941, a Day that will Live in Infamy).
  2. We eye-roll over dangling modifiers we see in the local newspaper and eliminate them in our own work – “Through hard work, the draft was at last ready to go!” If only our drafts would do the work themselves.
  3. Our characters say or ask. They don’t chortle or declaim or insinuate or interrogate. And they usually do so without any adverbial boost. Those of a certain age may recall the “Tom Swifty” (I know a truly filthy one; don’t ask). Its perils may make using adverbs seem downright dangerous.
  4. We make sure the names and spellings of people and places are consistent. Of course. (I deliberately violated this precept in my short story “Tooth and Nail.” Bear in mind, the narrator was unhinged.) Moreover, spare me manuscripts whose characters are Berger, Brager, Benton, and Beaton. I will never keep them or anything close to them straight. We know many of our “readers” are actually audiobook listeners. A name heard is harder to remember than one read. Thus the nametag.
  5. We are not time-travelers. We don’t mistakenly flip back and forth between past and present, and we establish the way-back time with a “had” or two then drop the “hads” in the interest of simplicity. Led properly, our readers know where they are.
  6. Homonym errors. OK, enough about there, their, and they’re and its and it’s. We know the difference between carrots, karats, karets, and carets. But even when my brain knows the right word, sometimes my fingers do not. Words with homonyms are landmines: “reign it in,” “beyond the pail,” “the plane truth.” In a story set in Alaska in which a character was eaten by a bear (bare), I referred to his grizzly death. I was making a pun, but I’ve since run across writers apparently unfamiliar with the word “grisly.” Lee Masterson compiled a nice list of these and their cousins: heteronyms, homographs, and homophones.
  7. And, when in doubt, we consult the experts.


Read What Writers Know – Part 1