A recent comment I read on a blog about “most” mysteries piqued my interest, and I’ll paraphrase what the reader said: First and foremost, most scenarios and motives for murder are not that original. I’ve seen similar stories many times before on CSI and every other crime show.
Obviously this person is not a fan of mystery writers! I would like to believe that a huge percentage of writers are able to come up with original ideas and there is no standard formula such as man with gun kills man without gun. I have read hundreds of mysteries and can honestly say that I’ve never read one that was that similar to those previously read. Just by listening to Nancy Grace or any other major news program, one can see that crime occurs in a multitude of ways, and unless they are committed by a copy-cat serial killer, they are rarely the same. Why? Because the circumstances will always be different.
Imagine that a masked intruder has broken into a house with the intention of absconding with the family jewels. In the process, a guest staying at the thought-to-be-empty residence comes down the steps, headed for the kitchen. He sees the criminal, reaches for a nearby baseball bat and confronts the burglar. Caught in the act, the burglar reaches for his pistol to scare the man away. Undaunted and determined to protect his host’s property, the guest lunges forward, and in the process pulls the stocking mask from the intruder’s face, recognizing a neighbor who attended the previous night’s barbecue at the residence. Fearing exposure and arrest, the burglar shoots the guest, picks up his booty, and runs out into the night.
It would be naive to say that particular critic hasn’t seen a similar scenario on the news, but would it be exact? No. If the guest hadn’t come down the steps it would have been a simple burglary. Now it has become a murder, not because of the burglary, but because of the perpetrator’s fear of being discovered and hauled off to jail. The thief didn’t intend to commit murder, but was willing to on the spur of the moment to protect his identity. The guest just wanted a glass of milk. Short of underlying additional circumstances, this would hardly seem to be good fodder for a mystery, let alone a crime show. Therein lies the writer’s task. To flesh up the story so it is not only believable, but will hold the reader’s attention to the end.
Mystery writers are a unique group. There is no knight in shining armor waiting at the end of the rainbow to transport the love-stricken heroine across the rainbow to the land of tacos and salsa. It is a tough job to come up with enough twists and turns to keep a reader interested up to the last page. Prolific writers like James Patterson and John Sandford lead the pack in best-sellers, churning out book after book, one best-seller following another. Where do they come up with so many plots? From the imaginations of the posse of writers who work closely with them. So closely that these flocks of writers do everything but publish under their own name. Instead, they publish with the writer, more than likely sharing the royalties and in some instances the honor of having your name on the cover right under the famous author’s name.
In a previous blog I wrote about writing with a buddy, the benefits and pitfalls. Now it appears to be in vogue to have a chosen group of writers send you their manuscripts. What happened here? Did writing become so financially profitable for Patterson and Sandford that they lost the desire to do it themselves? Maybe so…
I read somewhere that Patterson reached the highest pinnacle of writing in the mid-nineties, just before he started co-writing with others. Up until then he had written the Alex Cross series on his own, along with one I particularly enjoy, the Women’s Murder Club series featuring detective Lindsay Boxer. The first were written with Andrew Gross and the remainder seem to be all written with (or by) Maxine Paetro, who made the NY Times bestseller list with Patterson a number of times. The Michael Bennet series was co-written with Michael Ledwidge. Having reached a pinnacle or not, Patterson holds the New York Times bestsellers list record with 63 titles and has grossed over three billion dollars in sales. Wow, that’s quite an accomplishment, and if you do the math, his co-writers have probably fared rather well over the years.
I had the pleasure of attending a book signing by John Sandford for his latest book, Mad River, at Collected Works in Santa Fe. I was mesmerized, listening to him talk of his life and his writing process. (Sandford, by the way, has bought a house here in Santa Fe and almost promised that one of his future novels might have a Santa Fe background.) Sandford has written the Prey series and the Virgil Flowers series along with other stories. An interesting fact about the writer is that John Sandford is the pseudonym of John Roswell Camp, an American author and journalist. Camp won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, and was one of four finalists for the prize in 1980. He also was the winner of the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for 1985. He spoke at length that as a journalist he had seen it all, and had written tons of magazine and newspaper articles about blood shed in as many ways as it could be. At the signing, Sandford/Camp also spoke volumes about turning to a select group of writers to get his books written, which appear at the rate of at least twelve per year. Unlike Patterson, he doesn’t seem to give the co-authors credit on the cover, but once again, I’m sure they are generously remunerated.
So, I’m a bit sad about learning that my two favorite authors haven’t been totally responsible for holding my attention through page after page of breath-holding drama into the wee hours of the night. But then again, how many writers will become so famous that all it takes is to put their stamp of approval on a manuscript and it becomes published gold? Makes me proud that my ideas for a plot come a little harder than they might for the mighty N.Y. Times bestsellers.
In writing Deadly Deception, I was intrigued by a cold case in Albuquerque which had remained unsolved for almost ten years. An article in that city’s newspaper revealed that the family of the victim had been pressuring their congressman and local authorities to revisit the circumstances around the case. The family insisted that the police officer husband of the victim had killed her for the insurance money, the husband claimed otherwise. An excerpt from the case files indicates: State Police told the media that Melanie McCracken died in a car accident. Her husband, (a State Police officer), claimed his wife died of cancer. A medical expert determined the cause of death was “homicidal suffocation.” What is the real story? Update: May 3, 2002, Melanie’s case was featured on “NBC Dateline” winning the Edward R Murrow Award for investigative reporting. 10/31/03, NMSP Lt. Mark McCracken was indicted for the first degree murder and evidence tampering. Grand jurors also requested that another grand jury be empanelled to review the conduct of the NMSP investigators. 4/04, family petitions grand jury to investigate NMSP. 12/30/04, McCracken won’t stand trial. 1/8/05, outcry for reform in NM. And finally, December 30, 2004: [Excerpts] Evidence does not support murder charge, judge rules the nearly decade-long nightmare for former State Police Lt. Mark McCracken is over today after a judge ruled he will not stand trial for his young wife’s mysterious death.
Those articles were the basis of the plot for Deadly Deception and were fueled by my own anger about the case, the injustice to the victim and her family, and the husband who reminded me so much of Drew Peterson. Of course, I built the story and embellished the circumstances, but it was the initial idea for this book. I turned the task of solving the case over to my characters, Detective Rick Romero and Forensic Psychologist, Jemimah Hodge and their sidekick, Tim McCabe. I was not surprised at all that they made the police officer a real bad guy. This stemmed from the many incidents of police brutality in New Mexico which have surfaced of late. I was pleased with how the story in Deadly Deception unfolded, and I hope so were my readers.
The third book in the series, tentatively titled Treasure Among the Shadows, is based on the memoir of a long-time Santa Fe collector and owner of a private Indian ruins near Cerrillos on the ranch which has been the site for my other books. Forrest Fenn wrote a fabulous memoir and tossed in an honest to goodness treasure hunt for good measure. The book is titled The Thrill of the Chase, and sets out clues where this magnificent treasure might be found. I set about to concoct a story about a treasure hunt with a murder attached and a few bad guys thrown in for good measure. That one will be released around June of 2013. If you’re interested in learning more about the treasure hunt, follow Fenn’s blog, http://www.oldsantafetradingco.com/blog/ and you will discover what made this an exciting topic to write about.
At the present time, I’m working on the fourth book of the series. That one will be about a popular Santa Fe Mariachi whose body is found buried near the Crawford Ranch, which was the site of the first mystery, Shadows Among the Ruins. These cold Santa Fe days keep me homebound, especially when the roads are slick and dangerous. With a nice hot cup of chai tea filling the room with a spicy aroma, it pulls me toward my computer.
Keep reading those books, no matter in what form. It’s good for the soul. And who knows, it might just spur you on to write that best selling novel you’ve always dreamed you would do. The New Year is the perfect time to do it!