Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

draft

The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Deadly Ink: Characters

Handwriting, boredom

Very possibly I made an impression on my daughter’s new in-laws last month when I said how, with most women, you can talk to them about their careers or their kids or what they’re reading, but in my case you could talk about blood spatter.

You might think this would have been a conversation-stopper, but my daughter’s new sister-in-law immediately launched into how her son had bled so profusely after knocking his head on the kitchen counter. “Oh yes,” I said knowingly, “scalp wounds. Lots of blood.” It pays to know your stuff.

I added to my trove of crime and thriller lore this past weekend at the annual Deadly Ink conference, an intimate group of crime and thriller writers and readers, mostly from New Jersey and its Manhattan suburbs. It’s a great place to expound upon crime-writing topics and to hobnob with other like-minded folk. Guest of Honor this year was energetic and down-to-earth author Wendy Corsi Staub, who participated beginning to end, and our Toastmaster was Dick Belsky.

I ended up on three panels, Character (you need them!), the Dark Side (who, me?), and Building Suspense. The only suspense was whether I could think of something useful to contribute. Regardless, the panels were all lively and fun and, since almost no one ran out screaming and demanding their money back, they may have actually been useful or, possibly, entertaining.

I had made some modest preparations for the Character panel and focused my remarks on what I’d brushed up on, character description. Sometimes writers describe characters readers only see once or twice. Not necessary.. Sometimes they give a complete height-weight-eye color (so often green, have you noticed?)-hair color-complexion rundown. Also not necessary, I said, except when these details are relevant to the story, like six-foot, full-figured Monica Ludd, who uses her size to intimidate (or seduce) in Maggie Gee’s new novel Blood, reviewed yesterday.

I cited Stephen King in On Writing, who says a character’s description begins in the writer’s imagination and ends in the reader’s imagination. No need for details. Let your readers fill in. When they do, they own the character and that’s exactly what you want! For King’s character Carrie White, all he said was that she was a high school outcast with bad skin and a fashion-victim wardrobe. What more is needed? We’ve all known and maybe sometimes been that person.

That led to a discussion of how the movie version of a character can become our indelible picture of a character—Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire—and what happens when that picture conflicts with our internal picture—Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Total fail.

Donald Maass (Writing 21st Century Fiction) further points out the paradox that the more unique you make your characters the more universal they are. Readers can latch onto some aspect of a character and relate to it, almost no matter what. What you don’t want are bland, generalized, two-dimensional characters with no unredeeming attributes. Give them flaws! Too-perfect characters are boring and not believable.

This excellent panel was moderated by Lynn Marron and included the estimable Jane Kelly, D.W Maroney, and Dick Belsky.

(Tomorrow: More from Deadly Ink)

Prose by Any Other Name

books, bookstore

With more than 4,500 new books published every day in the U.S., the odds of coming up with a unique title would seem to evaporate by the minute. No surprise, then, that when you search for a book by title, you often have to scroll through a lot of misses to get your hit. Amazon had 10 books with the same title as a short story collection I recently reviewed!

Suitability

In Emily Temple’s recent Literary Hub encomium on the naming of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, she says, notice first “the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables,” not to mention, I’d add, the evocation of the sea itself: sssssss . . . sssssssss. “It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good,” she says. Beyond that is the title’s provenance, which goes back to Greek literature. While this distinguished patrimony may not resonate with most of us, she says, “It’s also, not for nothing, a band name.” More news.

We can think of any number of novels whose titles perfectly encapsulate their core: Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) or, more recently, Below the Fold (Dick Belsky), and Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Way too many book titles provide no memory-jog about their contents, as a scan of your own bookshelf will prove.

Distinctiveness

I’ve reviewed almost 175 new crime/thriller novels for CrimeFictionLover.com over the past four-plus years, and occasionally need to find one on my list. Some titles recall the book immediately. Others leave me wondering, did I read this??

One strategy is to include the name of a person or place in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow, Wolf Hall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Such a title will be distinctive, but since the prospective book buyer doesn’t yet know who Eleanor Oliphant is, it may not be memorable. Lincoln in the Bardo works because you know who Lincoln is, even if, like me, you have to look up “the bardo.”

Overfamiliarity

Gone Girl and the cover with the flying hair was suitable and distinctive. Not so the—dozens? hundreds?—of girl-titles that followed. So many the effect was lost. At least AJ Finn, whatever his other foibles, had a woman at his window. Similarly, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (with a bullet-ridden dust-jacket), suitable, distinctive, even though we don’t know him yet, has now been followed by The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A little too similar for my taste, but both titles contain a puzzle. Even a cat has only nine lives and one death. A little snare for your memory.

Memorability

Being suitable and distinctive are ways of making your book title memorable. Given that word of mouth is one of your most potent marketing tools, you want to make sure the title of your book springs to the tongues of your many fans. When their friends seek it out, you want them to find your book, not twelve other people’s. Those right few words on the cover are hard to come by, but worth every effort.

Navigating Oceans of Words

From time to time, my writing group has included a member whose first language is other than English. It’s only when you tackle editing the prose of such an individual that you begin to appreciate what an unwieldy beast American English is.

A stunning recent reminder of this came in Reuben Westmaas’s essay on word order. It turns out that English has a very precise requirements for stringing along adjectives. Who knew? I didn’t.

Here is Westmaas quoting Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. [Really?] So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It’s mind-bogglingly true. Try rearranging this example: “I just bought nice new wine refrigerator” (opinion-age-purpose-Noun) These insights, which most of us have internalized since “See Spot chase the big red ball” (size-color-Noun) and not thought of again—not even thought of as reflecting a thing, like a rule–are from Mark Forsyth’s 2013 book, The Elements of Eloquence.

I’m sure glad that decades of reading and listening have imprinted that rule in my brain so that I don’t have to actually think about it. I’ve also abandoned any thought of teaching ESL.

A second problem is our language is jam-packed with idioms. To a German-born friend, I suggested a book I was currently in love with—The Big Sky, one of Pulitzer-winner A B Guthrie. Jr.’s six monumental novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana. To me, it was a perfect evocation of the American sense of the limitless possibilities of “going West” (alas, fading now), of being independent and free, of the frontier.

I foolishly didn’t recognize that the idioms were thick as the forests, and not just modern (for 1947) idioms. It employed colorful uses of language that would make sense to an 1830 fur trapper and his backwoods brethren rafting on the Missouri River. And here I thought the language was absurdly simple. We won’t mention their grammar: “Ain’t nothin like whiskey to ile (oil) a rusty tongue.” He gave the book back to me in complete bafflement.

A final problem is spelling, given that dozens of languages form our crazy talk, and the “rules” created to pretend it makes sense, which are rife with exceptions. Relatedly, I’d include that bane of the self-published and indifferently edited: homophones (led, lead; bough, bow; pique, peak; great, grate; and so on and on and on).

We all remember the spelling rule “i before e except after c and in words that have the ‘a’ sound.” Sure. Westmaas points out that more American words violate that principle than follow it. In fact, the score is 900 to 40 in favor of “exceptions.” I’ll take his word for it. How I became a school spelling bee champion is one of life’s mysteries. We writers sail on, navigating our little boats through a sea of linguistic confusion. We may take the peculiarities of English for granted, but when we’re faced with a non-native’s prose, wow. There be dragons. Give those adventurers credit!

Photo: Steve Johnson, creative commons license.

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