DISSECTING THE WELL WRITTEN MYSTERY

A few days ago I was attempting  to  add a little juice to a story I was writing, and plagued by an overwhelming lack of direction. Instead of calling it writer’s block, I usually say my word bank is temporarily inaccessible due to inclement weather, and the weather here in Santa Fe has been off the charts. We’re either bundled up like an Eskimo or walking around in a light jacket. Apparently it was also affecting my mood. So I did the next best thing and drove downtown to Collected Works, my favorite book store. I browsed for a while in the mystery section, and picked up a book that looked interesting. I took it home and plumped up the pillows on my bed, grabbed a hot cup of green tea, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day chillin’. It was a good read, and I finished it off the next morning. The writer made me sit up and take notice of her particular way of presenting a story, and since I’m always sliding around the learning curve, I managed to absorb a few things. Here’s how the plot was laid out:

In the introduction you start to believe the wife is first missing and then dead.
From the way the husband reacts, you think he killed her.

Then the pedophile down the street is introduced – you start thinking he’s probably the murderer. How could he not be, he lives just a few houses away.

The detectives interview the couple’s four year old and she technically implicates the father by repeating what she heard in the hallway right before her mother went missing.

We find out that the missing woman is a teacher and she’s been spending a lot of time with one of her students,  a computer whiz, learning about how she can break into her husband’s laptop, suspecting he might be visiting porn sites. The kid is only thirteen, but you start to wonder if there’s a possibility that he might be responsible for her disappearance, since once in a while you see a news story where a twelve year-old killed off his entire family.

Then we meet the computer kid’s uncle, who is much better at helping her crack into her husband’s computer because he works for the cops and that’s what he does for a living. So we get the idea she’s starting to fall for him while the computer kid looks on. Perhaps he’s a little jealous of his uncle?

About the time the author has convinced us we’re on the right track to solving this mystery, the missing woman’s father finagles his way into the story. He wants custody of the little girl, a child he never even knew existed until he read about his missing daughter in the newspapers.

So it continues to appear as though the husband isn’t quite telling the truth, so the cops  interview the child a second time. The grandfather obtains a court order to see his granddaughter, and while the husband is processing this in his beleaguered mind, the old man shows up inside their house and tries to kill the husband.

Now the story starts moving forward at a rapid pace. The missing wife shows up in the house just in time to shoot her father while he’s trying to do away with her husband. They have a sit-down and she tells him the whole story – in a nutshell she was afraid of the computer kid’s uncle’s reaction when she tried to break their affair off so decided to run off to keep him from harming her husband and child.

But we’re not finished. The computer uncle is killed by a bomb in his car at the same time the grandfather is trying to kill the father, and bomb components are found in the grandfathers hotel room tying him to that crime. The husband then discovers that years ago the old guy had killed his wife in front of the daughter, and then continued to molest her. He divulges his own childhood secrets to her.

So the detectives close the file, the couple is back together, they’re having another baby, and we find out later the wife set up her father by putting the bomb stuff in his room after she killed the computer uncle. And everyone lives happily ever after.

I won’t divulge the author or the title of the book, but clearly I can see why this writer is always on the best-selling lists. The story moves along at a rapid pace and there are so many red herrings that the book starts to smell like a fish hatchery, but it keeps you turning the pages. I have spoken to several mystery writers in the past, and I’m amazed at how differently everyone approaches their writing. One fellow surely has A.D.D. as he indicates that before he even sits down at the computer, he already has the entire story in his mind so he just starts writing. That’s a skill I’d sure like to have in my box of tricks. Another writes down his story line on 3×5 cards and then begins to expand from there. Yet another author creates an entire story board on a large piece of newsprint, breaking out the entire story like a cartoon before sitting down to write. Other writers fill in character and story line sheets, so they don’t repeat the same incident in the next book and they always know what their characters have done in the past. The character sheets contain the name of the character, along with their physical description, where they work, what they do, and how that character has been developed in previous stories.

In my own writing, as a novice mystery writer, I tend to create a skeleton sketch of a story in a notebook which might just be one idea, and then sit down at my desktop. I usually start with a prologue and a first chapter if there’s something that will start the action moving forward. But the rest is a crap shoot. Sometimes I’ll write the last chapter and then go back and fill in the story as I go along. Once in a while it does seem like rocket science.

Posted in The Writing Life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

CHOOSING CHARACTERS AND SETTINGS

A while back, someone asked me why I had chosen to give one of my main characters a Mormon background in Shadows Among the Ruins. My reply  is that I wanted Jemimah Hodge, the forensic psychologist, to stand out, to be different, and to have a host of life’s traumatic events as part of her story. So, why a Mormon? Quite honestly, I have always found that religion to be every bit as interesting as Catholicism. What drew me to it was not the religion itself, but the aspect of it which had become such controversial headlines over the years: the Fundamentalist sects that embrace the practice of polygamy. I did not intend to make judgments on anyone’s religious beliefs. It is fiction, after all, and life gives us so many subjects to draw from.

I wondered how a young woman from this culture really felt about her father having several wives and multiple children. I also wondered about how the wives themselves felt about sharing their husband with other women. Granted, when a young person is brought up in a particular lifestyle, it is all they know. Yet I wanted to explore a character who did not agree with everything going on around her. One who was single minded, independent and outspoken. Jemimah Hodge is all that and more. I gathered additional information from several television shows which depict the polygamous lifestyle. I watched every episode of “Sister Wives” and observed the faces of the three women as they tried to appear so jubilant that their shared husband was bringing yet another wife into the fold. Personally, I would have never stood for it. It was heart-wrenching to see them expending so much effort trying to convince their husband and each other that it was all right. Deep down in their hearts, I don’t believe they thought it was okay. The husband spent far more time with the new fiancee  and it appeared that he preferred her company to theirs. There was no doubt in my mind that he was acting like a love-struck teenager.

I also like to treat the setting for my stories as one of the characters. The town of Cerrillos is a wonderful little town with a magic quality about it. Right in the center there is an old trading post, an old Catholic church, and an opera house from the 1800s. It resembles an abandoned movie set, yet there is a daily hustle and bustle which gives it a remarkable energy. Although I might intimate in my book that they have a high crime rate, in actuality they do not. It is a peaceful little burg surrounded by magical hills, and populated by some very nice people.

The Crawford Ranch is actually based on the Cash Ranch, a place where an old cowgirl named Hazel Cash ruled with an iron hand from the mid-forties all the way up to her death in 1979. She was a five-foot tall ball of energy, who smoked Pall Malls and drank Jack Daniels whiskey. She herself had a colorful life, having been the proprietress of the first country music bar and lounge in Santa Fe and the owner of two well attended cathouses during the fifties. I was married to her grandson and spend many weekends out at the ranch, a life which I quickly discovered I was not cut out for. On one occasion, the mare was ready to foal and Hazel decided I should help. I followed her to the barn, knowing I wasn’t going to be much help at all. I stood around like a dummy, my feet glued to the ground. She singlehandedly delivered the foal and although it was a beautiful experience, she never asked for my help again. My brother, Ricardo, took care of the ranch for us until the will contest matters were settled, and he provided much more information about the area than I would have ever remembered.

The San Lazaro Indian Ruins are also a magical place and really are one of the few privately owned ruins in New Mexico. Originally they were part of the Cash Ranch, but after Hazel’s death the property was sold and the new owner borrowed money on the ruins and eventually defaulted.  I was fortunate to be able to introduce the ruins to local art dealer, Forrest Fenn, who ultimately purchased them and has done a tremendous job of excavating the area and documenting each find. He has written a comprehensive book on the pueblo, The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo. (The character Tim McCabe in Shadows is based loosely on Forrest.) His most recent book, The Thrill of the Chase, is a great read also It’s a wonderful memoir with a treasure hunt woven between the pages.

I am an avid people watcher, and my characters grow from what I see and from people around me. In the coming sequel to Shadows, I use several of my own life events to bolster the characters. When my brother Jimmy was fighting Cancer, I used his struggles with an aluminum walker to indicate the problem Jerry Frazier was experiencing as he maneuvered a walker in the story.  By far, I still consider myself a fledgling writer, learning a little bit every day. Some days the words flow like honey. Other days they are as slow as molasses.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

WRITING BLOCKS AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Writing blocks, ah, we’ve all had them.  Some of us more than others.  I’ve been semi-struggling with a work of fiction for about six months now.  It’s a multi-generational story, and I’ve come to a fork in the dirt road.  I do most of my writing in the evenings and on weekends, when there are less distractions to deal with.  This aging, somewhat meager manuscript has spent a lot of time on the shelf along with a number of other writing projects which include a cookbook, a children’s story, and two more mysteries set in New Mexico. Every so often I’ll take the manuscript into my bedroom, where I prop the pillows up, grab an icy glass of decaf tea, turn the TV on, reach for my reading glasses and proceed to reread.  Some people might consider that to be a lot going on, but I’ve discovered that multitasking helps me to focus more on the task at hand. And besides, I do my best work in the bedroom.  Maybe I have a form of Attention Deficit Disorder, who knows?

My stories begin in longhand. I write in a notebook and then transfer it to my computer. I don’t mind typing at all and I smile when I see others doing the hunt-and-peck (two finger typing).  I was a legal secretary for a good portion of my life, and honed my skills on IBM electric typewriters (yes, you remember those), and MagCards (IBM typewriters which saved information on a 3×6 magnetic card ).  During the 1990s when my art was becoming a bigger focus than my job, my grandson insisted I buy a desktop computer.  I was surprised to find that its keyboard was so similar to an electric typewriter .  Well that worked fine, and then a few years later at my son’s prodding I tried a laptop.  He said it would free me up and I could take my work with me to the coffee shop and a host of other places.  Honestly, this didn’t work at all.  Because I type pretty fast (150 wpm or more with little effort) it turned out that all the words ran together on the laptop.  After ten minutes of typing I looked up to find  that there was nary a space between words.  I had to go back and insert spaces between  almost every word, a task I found to be very irritating and time consuming.  I never did get used to that skinny-ass laptop keyboard, so I hearkened back to my trusty pen and paper and my  handy desktop.

Back to my original topic on writing blocks. Some months ago I received an email newsletter from  Jessica Morrell, a writer/editor from Oregon who conducts writing seminars throughout the west. I had used her editing services on one of my manuscripts in the past and found her sharing of information admirable.  This particular newsletter had a section about characters and how to develop them.  She asked, “Just how much DO you know about your character?”  I realized that in most cases I  knew very little about my characters.  They were just truly figments of my mahagination (a word coined by my daughter when she was six).  Did I know their social security numbers?  No.  Did I know how much they weighed?  No.  Did I know their favorite color or alcoholic beverage?  No.   Overall, I was embarrassed how little I did know about my characters.  Jessica’s solution was to take your character out to breakfast or lunch and find out a little more about them.  I made a mental note to do just that.

The following Saturday morning I drove across Santa Fe’s busy main street over to the Santa Fe Baking Company, where I ordered a cup of Earl Grey tea and a bagel for myself and just water for my character.  She wasn’t hungry, having risen early in the day, gone out for a jog, and eaten a hearty bowl of yogurt and granola.   So I took out my notebook and proceeded to take notes of everything she said.  At first she was a bit hesitant, since she wasn’t quite sure of my motives.  After all, she had run away from her ex-husband a while back and needed some reassurance I hadn’t been hired to track her down.  I smiled assuredly and explained I was just trying to get to know a little more about her.  She smoothed her hair back with long, well-manicured fingers.  I ventured a guess that with those beautiful hands she could probably play a mean rendition of  a Rachmaninov piano concerto, and I asked about her musical endeavors.  She replied that as a child she hated the weekly piano lessons her parents insisted she partake of, but admitted that for a number of years she had capitalized on this talent to earn extra money playing at a small restaurant during her college days.

I noticed that she had a small scar in the center of her neck.  The robin’s egg blue turtleneck she was wearing was about a half-inch too low to cover it.  She must have seen me staring, as her hand quickly went to her throat.  “I was in an accident some years ago,” she said.  “My brother and I were running through the woods and I didn’t see the wire strung between two trees and I ran right smack into it.  It crushed one of the bones in my larynx and it had to be replaced with some sort of plastic.”  I nodded, a little embarrassed that she seemed able to read my thoughts and realized that‘s how her Betty Davis voice probably developed..  I was a bit uncomfortable, sitting at the table with this woman.  She had a way of answering one question without hesitation, as if she knew there was more to it than I was asking; and on the next one completely avoiding eye contact.  Yes, I wanted to know her deepest thoughts.  What did she think about life, love, war, and everything else?  What events had occurred in her life to make her appear so shallow in one light and so forthcoming in the other?  Why was she here in this small town; what was she looking for; who was she looking for?  Did she come here to renew her old acquaintances and friendships, or did she come here to hide?  And what was she hiding from?

After about an hour, she began to fidget in her chair.  I realized our interview was over.  She wasn’t at all interested in answering any more questions.  She kept looking at her watch as though she had a much more important place to be.  I waved for the waiter, paid the tab, smiled and said.  “Let’s do lunch soon.  I’ll call you.”  I haven’t been able to reach her for several weeks, but I am having lunch with Carlos tomorrow.  You remember him. He’s the tall, dark and sinfully handsome antique dealer from Buenos Aires.  I can hardly wait!

Posted in characters, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing blocks | 1 Comment

My Road to Mystery Writing

I started writing in the mid-1990s just to document a lot of information I had been gathering related to my art field. For material that has a Southwestern tinge to it, finding a publisher was not difficult. Maybe I was just lucky.  I’ve managed to have my books about Churches, personal shrines, Santos (Saints), a coloring book and even a memoir about growing up in Santa Fe published. I was pretty happy about all these events, and completed a book of short stories, which was also published.

Two years ago while attending the New Mexico Book Awards, Anne Hillerman announced that the Tony Hillerman Award for the coming year was going to be increased to $10,000.  The award would be a $10,000 advance and contract with Minotaur Press in New York, and would be given to a mystery set in any of the four corner states (New Mexico/Arizona/Utah/Colorado.) It also had to be from a writer who had never published a mystery.  Well, I thought I might be able to do that. How difficult could it be?  After reading about fifty of the most popular mystery writers the rest of the winter, at the beginning of the year I started writing.  It didn’t take too long before I found out how difficult it was to write fiction and a mystery at that. I really gained a great deal of respect for mystery writers and how so many of them could wind a story around the twists and turns and then leave you panting for more by the time you reached the last page.  I threw myself into perfecting this mysterious craft, and before too long I found I had a viable story, one with the twists and turns that would keep a reader turning the page.  But it wasn’t perfect and I didn’t have the skills to perfect it. A friend in Florida suggested I contact an editor who might be able to give me an idea of what the manuscript needed to fine tune it.

That was an adventure in itself. In the first two conversations, I discovered that I had piled too much information about the area into the first chapters.  Well, darn it, I figured if you’d never been to New Mexico you would surely want to know something about it. He said it read like a travelogue. My argument was that writers like Michael McGarrity and Robert Parker pepper the pages with descriptions of the area, as did Tony Hillerman. His response was that well-known published writers can get away with a lot more once they are established; that the rules for “beginning” writers are different. So … delete, delete, delete.

Working with a free-lance editor was also an unexpected adventure. First of all, I learned later that I had to be careful that even with the changes he suggested (and many of them were good ones), I still had to retain my own voice and the integrity of the story. When I reread the whole story at the end, I discovered that there were a few things he had inserted that worked to change how I had envisioned my character, so I changed them back. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t rewrite my text, he just made suggestions about what was lacking, then I would write and rewrite and send it back to him. Occasionally, he would insert a word or two to pull it together.  He also didn’t like the Epilogue and suggested I can it, but I liked it and felt it was necessary to give the reader an idea of what happened after the end. Three hundred pages and many of my edits later, I was fairly content with how the story read.

I have since written a sequel to that first story and am working on the third, which has been far more difficult as life events have interrupted my many personal projects.

Through a series of serendipitous events, in the past few months I have been fortunate to “score” a publisher. Shadows among the Ruins has just been published by Camel Press, an imprint of Coffeetown Press.

Posted in The Writing Life | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments