Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Does Technology Make Mysteries Harder to Write?

I recently did a story for an upcoming Speed City Sisters in Crime Anthology (Decades of Dirt: Murder Mystery and Mayhem from the Crossroads of Crime). Set in the 1830s, my piece entailed a fair bit of research about life in Indiana at that time.

My frame of reference was ancestors who operated a grain mill in Indiana, but they could only serve as a starting point for a mystery. When I delved more, I found that the kind of mill they operated would have been very different from those even thirty years later—a period I was more familiar with. Thus, if I wanted to sabotage the family mill, I had to put the right kind of cog in the wheel, so to speak.

When I shared the story with my critique group, someone asked if I was sure frying pans existed in the 1830s. My assumption was correct, but it reinforced the need to be thorough.

While murder weapons or getaway vehicles were very different in the 1830s, the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century create their own problems in crafting mysteries. Thanks to smart phones and security cameras, it's hard for a perpetrator to vanish. On the other hand, there are more ways to kill people, too. I love poisons that are hard to isolate in the blood.

So, what's an author to do to thwart technology? I've had protagonists realize that the purse with a cell phone was in the next room when the villain attacks. No way to call for help. Then there's the isolated beach with no signal. Even that's getting hard, since so many phones now rely on satellite technology. Those suckers never sleep.

I write cozy mysteries, so the sleuth doesn't have to know a lot about law enforcement techniques or equipment. She or he does have to be smart enough to solve a murder, but not so smart that she does it quickly. However, something has to give the sleuth an advantage.

I like visual examples, so think about the movie The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. There's a long scene in which Ford's character (Richard Kimble) eludes the marshals in and around a Chicago detention center. Kimble eventually vanishes in a St. Patrick's Day parade. The U.S. Marshals used radios to stay in constant touch—some on the roof, some in a stairwell, and many other places. It sounds simple, but those radios were an important factor in staying even with the desperate Dr. Kindle.

The movie came out in 1993. Twenty-two years later, those radios sound almost quaint. In all the NCIS shows, the teams constantly get photos from security and traffic cameras, sometimes in real time. (It's fiction, remember?) Snap a photo of a murder victim, send it to the office computer geeks and, voila, there's an ID. Another device lets investigators put a fingerprint on a gadget about the size of a smart phone. In almost no time, the print identifies a culprit. My low-tech sleuths use the computer to check old newspaper articles, and occasionally get access to security tapes. Still, those tools are relatively recent.

M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth is in remote Scotland. He still does most of his sleuthing through tried and true personal contact. Sue Grafton keeps the Kinsey Milhone series in the 1980s. I understand she chose to do this so Kinsey didn't have to age beyond her mid-thirties. It also limits Kinsey's technology tools. Her smarts are what count.

It's difficult (for most of us) to predict how technological advantages will make it harder for the bad guys to thwart investigators twenty years from now. In a few years, we'll think immediate access to fingerprint data is old-fashioned. I'm waiting for something like the Star Trek Hollow Deck so we can reenact a crime at the drop of a hat. However, that could put a lot of sleuths—amateur or professional—out of business.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Interact with Readers and Sell Books

Though it may seem surprising, the Kindle Boards offer you a way to interact with readers and publicize your books across multiple markets. Regardless of whether you use the boards for this purpose, it's worth getting familiar with them. 

When you go to the registration page (link below), you'll see a few paragraphs on treating other people respectfully. These appear before you enter identifying information because provocative comments (in the sense of flaming) and insults are not welcome or allowed. If you're insulted by not being able to be insulting toward others, the following sums up the Kindle Boards' perspective.

-  If the...guidelines irk you, and you're ready to get on your soapbox about free speech on the web... this is probably not the place for you.
-  If, on the other hand, you enjoy respectful and engaging dialogue and have a sense of courtesy to others... welcome! Enjoy! 

Assuming you follow the concept in the second bullet, here's the registration page.

After the usual steps and responding to the typical verification email, you're ready to go. 

The home page looks plain compared to the blinking buttons and dancing icons on some pages, but you can get right down to business. A menu at the top guides to you topics of interest to readers, authors, and more. 

A few inches below are headings for:
Amazon Devices
Authors' Boards
Content (as in the books themselves)
Reviews (geared to Kindle readers, but there is an 'other' category)
KB Boards Forum Central
KB Boards Info Center (lots of posts from authors about formatting, marketing, more)

Spend an hour or so figuring how you want to fit in. Find a forum you like and interact with readers and other authors.

If you're an author, you can create a topic for each book in the Book Bazaar (in the Content area)--but that's the only place you can do so. The single topic entry per book is firm. You can update it (to publicize a sale), but if you do a separate post about the same book, the moderators will merge it with the original page. Make sure you bookmark your topic so you can get to it easily.

Using the Book Profile Pages

This is how you reach readers beyond Amazon.

Use the address below, and put in the Amazon ASIN after the equal sign. Because you have not created a book profile page, you will get an option to do so. The link page noted here is to one of my books, which already has a profile page. Take out my ASIN and put in yours.

At the top of the finished profile page are flags that correspond to all of the Amazon sale sites. You can add three more purchase options, so you'll see BN, Google Play, and Smashwords on my book's profile page. Imagine that -- one place to send readers to buy your books! Put in a link to your web page, too.

There is also a spot at the top for you to write a note. Sometimes I quote a review, sometimes a thought about the book that is not in the description. You only have a few hundred characters (not words), so keep it short.

There is a place to link to the book's topic in the Kboards Book Bazaar. That's important. You publicize bargain or free days there, and may choose to add links to all sites that sell the book, not just three sites.

When you're done, save the profile page.

What's the best part about all of this? It's all free. When I created a Book Bazaar topic (different from the profile) for Ground to a Halt, 1,300 people viewed it before it went on sale. 

Get busy, and good luck!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer has been asked how they develop book ideas. Some can discuss a detailed research process and methodical search for the precise subject for a new book. Me? Not so much.

I have gotten some from newspaper clippings, others seem to have just popped into my head. These had to be rooted somewhere. Whatever the source, I have to push to move a passing idea to the reality of a book.

For example, in Ground to a Halt, I wanted 'something bad' to happen to the owner of the coffee shop (Joe) where Jolie and friends hang out – Java Jolt. I wrote two beginnings to the book. One had Jolie and friends sitting in the coffee shop trying to figure out who had harmed him, the other had Jolie seeing Joe soon after he was shot. The second idea won.
However, an idea from the losing option became an important part of the book.

The beginning and end of the mystery tend to flow freely. What I think of as the muddled middle is harder. With the first few books I wrote (not part of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series) I tended to leave the characters in transit (literally) and then got back to them later. Once they were left on a subway car, another time on a bus. It took awhile to see the pattern.

When I'm stalled, my technique is to write something I think is exciting or mysterious, and then figure the answer. I can do this with the series because the characters have histories. I can anticipate how they will act. Thus, the idea can germinate for a couple of days within the context of characters I know well.

In Ground to a Halt, I wanted the Java Jolt owner to be concerned about someone, but he couldn't make it too easy for Jolie to figure out who was in danger. Thus, when Joe is first injured, he tells Jolie "not to let them hurt him." Then he passes out, and he can't be reached at the hospital immediately. (There, you know he isn't killed early. Or is Joe killed at all?)

The initial phrase was "don't let them hurt her." After a day, the perfect 'him' came to me, complete with the circumstances of the danger. I don't advocate this method of advancing a plot when you're stuck, but it can work.
Rekindling Motives (second in the Jolie Gentil series) proceeded very differently. I find Prohibition fascinating, and wanted to feature it in a book. I read a lot about Prohibition in New Jersey, and then was able to work it into a long-ago murder and one in current time. This probably would not have worked as the first book in the series, as I didn't know the characters as well.

At the moment, I'm developing alternate ideas for a new series. A mid-Atlantic beach was the setting for the Jolie series because I like to be near the ocean. I also like to garden, paint walls, and travel. If I'm going to work with characters for a long time, they have to live in a place I like or do something I want to know more about. It should be an interesting selection process.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Making of a Mystery Writer

P.D. James once told the Paris Review, "I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

The death of this superb British crime writer (on November 27, 2014) can't be called a shock--she was ninety four.  It can be termed a loss for anyone who wonders not just who killed a character, but why.  Her Adam Dalgliesh was possibly the most cerebral of all investigators.  It would take time to learn the who in one of her books, but when you finished reading there was no doubt as to the why.

Children of Men, not a detective story, was my favorite book. The human race is about to end because no children have been born for decades. A reader might see a book blurb about that and expect a medical thriller in which a scientist close to discovering a cure has to dodge the charlatans who sell fertility amulets. What they would get is a thoughtful look at what drives desperate people and how they treat one another in difficult times. And P.D. James' version of a dramatic chase scene at the end. (Don't bother with the movie. I didn't recognize her book in it.)

To P.D. James, cheers for those early macabre thoughts, and thanks for sharing them with us through your books.

To aspiring mystery writers, study those nursery rhymes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sharing is the Best Sales Tool

As the daughter of parents who led Brownie and Boy Scout troops and coached softball teams, I believe in neighbors helping neighbors. The concept carries through to promoting myself and my books.

Rita & Miles Orr with Elaine.
When I finally figured out how to post electronic books on the various platforms (Amazon, Nook, itunes, etc.), it seemed a good idea to share what I'd learned. Not because I was especially well informed, but because after countless hours of learning and butting my head against the desk, it turned out only about three percent of what the style guides presented was essential.

So how does a newbie to self publishing figure out which three percent? From other authors. I developed a one-hour seminar to give, for free, in libraries or service club meetings. I did it to share, but far more has come back to me. I learn through other authors' questions or comments and, lo and behold, I sell some books. Sharing also means talking to people, and writing is a lonely business.

Buoyed by how much fun it was to do the seminars, I began writing blog posts on marketing and publishing as well as the usual musings about books and writing. After a couple of emails from people who had seen a post but couldn't find it (because it was older), I did an index to posts on this blog. And then, gee, why not tweet about some of the articles? Traffic on my blog soared.

Authors assist others without developing seminars.We answer emails from newbies who are not sure where to start, and share marketing ideas with other writers. If you look for opportunities to contribute, you always learn more, too.

A lot of good things happened because my parents taught their kids to share. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Recharging Book Settings

Since I don't live at the Jersey shore, I like to see the ocean from time to time to recharge my mental images. Luckily, I just spent several days near Jacksonville Beach, Florida with longtime friends. True, there are no palm trees or Spanish moss in New Jersey, but the surf and atmosphere are similar. 

The environment in a book is as important as the plot. I create a lot sitting at a table in Starbucks, but the setting is easier to imagine when I've recently seen sand dunes (as in the photo with the sawgrass) and surf. I certainly know what they look like. Maybe it's the smells I miss.

Fresh images can also move an idea forward. There was a building on pilings near the dunes that looked like a great place for a murder -- or at least a mugging. It sat along the walk that led to the beach. The walkway was elevated, as a New Jersey boardwalk would be. 

Then there was the lonely lifeguard chair sitting on a nearly vacant beach. To a  Midwesterner, it was a warm day (in the sixties), and I expected to see people on the beach. My friend reminded me that Floridians consider a temperature in the sixties to be chilly weather that requires a jacket. 
It was good to see an uncrowded beach. I deliberately set most of the Jolie Gentil series in the off-season--spring, fall or winter. It's easier for the characters to have normal lives when there aren't thousands of tourists to trip over. It's also possible for the bad guys to move around more easily. Fewer people to catch them in the act.

So, now I can finish the eighth book in the series with fresh visions of the ocean and a town geared to visitors--just like my Ocean Alley.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Know it Was a Good Book When...

Years later you still envision a setting or scene. There does not have to be an elaborate description, it's more what the author packs into a scene. There can be little action.

In War Day, by Strieber and Kutetka, two writers travel across America several years after a limited nuclear war. Some people think it's a book about the aftermath of war, but I mostly think of it as a book about how people treat one another in difficult times. That said, the scene that I most remember is a flight over a part of Texas that sustained a direct hit.

What remains closest to the impact location is simply black, the result of everything melting. As they (traveling by air, of course) move away, bent metal of skyscrapers appears. It's a long way before you get to the kind of damage you'd see after a World War II bombing. It's just all gone. Juxtaposed with the sterile environment is the character's memory of playing in sprinklers as a child.

Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott books wax descriptive, even more in later books. However, the sparser portrayal of the Knott 'home place' (her father's longtime tobacco farm and ponds, as noted in Bootlegger's Daughter) stick with me even more than longer accounts of the small house Deborah built years later.

Of course, Boo Radley's front porch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is indelibly inscribed in brain. Maybe it's because the kids were so afraid of it that their fear stays with me as Jeb creeps up to it

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows paints vivid pictures of the Isle of Guernsey during World War II. It's British territory, but so far from England that it can't be protected. Occupying Germans take much of the food stores, and of course there's no petrol to speak of long before the end of the war. Perhaps it's because everyone walked everywhere near the end that I see gardens and dirt roads so clearly. It's the overall struggles, even sending the children away, that probably make this book so memorable. I just reread it.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet brings World War II Seattle to life as Jamie Ford portrays two friends, a Japanese girl and Chinese boy, struggling with family relationships and the bigotry of the era. I can still see Seattle's Chinatown and the inside of young Henry Lee's family's apartment, as well as his friend Keiko's precise actions and artwork. And the contents of the Panama Hotel's basement in 1986, when the stored belongings of Japanese families are revealed so many decades later.

I decided to write this without developing a list of books or even studying my bookshelves. If the scenes come to mind so clearly, these really are the books I most remember.