Thursday, November 15, 2018

Over the Hump with River's Edge Three

The ebook of Demise of a Devious Suspect, third in the River's Edge series, has been joined by its paperback. When the paperback appears, I feel as if the book is real. Silly, I know -- especially since more readers buy the ebook. Still, there is nothing like the feel of a hard copy.

Protagonist Melanie has secured full access to her family's farm, so she and Mr. Tibbs have a comfortable place to live and a porch from which to view the cornfields. A place to invite friends to share a beer.

She's so at ease that she invites the handsome Syl and her buddy Stooper to be her guests at the Farm Bureau potluck supper. And then she finds a body in a coat closet at the dinner.  The body of the grain elevator owner with whom her late father had a strained relationship.

The discovery is upsetting, but she's not a suspect. However, she begins to wonder if the dead man should be a suspect in her parents' deaths. They were killed in a car accident on icy roads. But now it seems someone may have forced their car into a semi. 

Nothing is ever simple. 

Demise of a Devious Suspect lets readers know the characters and the town better, and introduces Cat, who inserts himself into Melanie's life. To the distress of Mr. Tibbs. Pets in my mysteries do not have human characteristics, but they are smart.

As a writer, I feel a series hits its stride with the third book. Perhaps it's because I'm fully comfortable with the characters. Comfortable enough to give them more ways to pry into the puzzle. 

You can find Demise of a Devious Suspect at all sites --
Annie Acorn Publishing, LLC
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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Staying True to Your Mystery's Red Herrings

The so-called red herring in a mystery is a false path the sleuth follows. As s/he starts down a trail it seems to be one  that will help solve the crime. It eventually becomes apparent that a suspect or lead is not what the crime-solver hoped it would be.

From the detective, PI, or amateur sleuth's perspective, following a false clue is largely a waste of time. It could mean a person who provided the lead is not to be trusted, and that's good to know -- but the red herring still takes time to address. It diverts the PI from the best path.

From the reader's vantage point, the red herring can be a good thing.
The book won't end soon. Many times I've wished a good novel were longer. 

So what do I mean about staying true to red herrings? They must appear to be logical clues, not simply time wasters or a chance for the sleuth to look brilliant. The reader doesn't want to read fluff or feel the wrong path could have been easily avoided.

Some of the best false directions are from the classic mystery writers -- Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammet (especially The Maltese Falcon), Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels and of course Raymond Chandler's Sam Spade (especially The Deep Sleep). The pace of these older novels is slower than what readers seem to expect in more current books, but don't let that turn you off. Follow the detective's mental trail and you'll learn a lot about good writing.

Though not mysteries in the classic sense, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have a plethora of twists and diversions. Some are natural, because Harry and friends are kids -- they make the occasional false assumption (based on past experiences with other characters). I think the path to Professor Snape's role in the stories is strewn with some of the best red herrings in literature. And when they are revealed, they make sense and pull together several story lines.

People occasionally tell me they especially like the false clues in a couple of my books. What they can't tell (thankfully) is that I decided that the murderer would be someone different than my original intention. The ultimate bad guy made sense, but so did the one I originally planned. Don't tell anyone.
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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mystery Writers Ponder the Genre

The 24th Magna Cum Murder Conference  in Indianapolis featured guests of honor Reavis Wortham of Texas (Sonny Hawke and Red River series) and Peter Lovesey of the UK (a 35+ year career including the Peter Diamond series set in Bath, England). Highlights of a couple of panels include:

Down Those Mean Streets --
a look at the PI Novel

Panel members discussed variations among the types of mysteries, including traditional mysteries, police procedurals, private investigators, and noir. Most examples focused on classic mysteries, and I could have listened to these panelists talk for another hour. Better than a seminar, but with some humor.

PIs in traditional mysteries (Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes) function in an orderly world, and they are looking for the disorderly person (criminal) among orderly people.  They may butt heads with the police sometimes, but they're on the same team. When the PI finds a culprit, s/he can turn the bad guys over to the police.  Hard-boiled detectives operate in a corrupt world; they are looking for deviants among deviants. (Terence Faherty)

In Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (a very dark PI novel), even the police are corrupt. The Continental Op (the narrator) pits characters against each other to clean up the town, but at great cost. Almost every key character dies. (Diana Collier)

Distinctions among types of mysteries have a lot to do with the tone, atmosphere, and language. (And not just whether they cuss or not, the level of coarseness varies.) The same plot could be written as a cozy, PI, or procedural. In the PI novel, the atmosphere would obviously be darker. (Kaye George)

Shown in the photo: Kaye George, Terence Faherty, M. Ruth Myers, Diana Collier, Jim Doherty.

In a traditional mystery, the PI would follow several paths, four of the perhaps five being red herrings. Eventually the investigation leads to a killer. Had the investigator picked the 'right' path first, it would be a short story. But if you look at Chandler's Deep Sleep, Philip Marlowe is peeling an onion. He has to jump through all the hoops to solve the crime. In many ways, it's a more complex story, more interesting to the reader. (Faherty)

Police procedurals show the mean streets real-life police have to face.  As Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) said, “It’s not how the detective works the case but how the case works on the detective.” (Jim Doherty)

Noir novels, as the name implies, are darker stories. Micky Spillane's Mike Hammer considers himself judge, jury and executioner -- in many ways a vigilante. Criminals generally don't get turned over to the police. (Faherty)

In Sickness and in Health

I moderated this panel, which discussed the extent to which health (mental or physical) can affect a story line. Participants included honorees Wortham  and Lovesey as well as Parnell Hall (The Hastings and Puzzle Lady series) and Michael Allen Dymmoch (Caleb and Thinnes series).

It's a given that all murder mysteries include at least one person with mental health issues -- the killer. I wish I could have made the kind of notes I take when I'm a panel attendee, because the panelists had cogent points.

We acknowledged that the health limitations could be those of the protagonist, villain, or victim. In fact, the Thrilling Detective website has a section devoted to "Defective Detectives," organized by mystery subgenre. In current culture, Adrian Monk's OCD often comes to mind first.

None of us structured our plots around a character's illness (beyond those with criminal intent). However. Dymmoch and Wortham both have key characters with PTSD. I thought Dymmoch's Jack Caleb gave a poignant description of his emotional reaction after rescuing a policeman from a car, covered in gasoline, that was about to be torched.

"[Caleb] shivered in spite of the blanket he was wrapped in. The excitement was wearing off and a poisonous cocktail of neurochemicals was replacing the adrenaline. He was beginning to experience depression. He'd suffered from it for so long it seemed comforting at times -- the devil you know. He felt the onset of a self-loathing that was familiar, too, a habit he had thought he'd broken. It was partly self-disgust at having lost control, partly a profound feeling of loneliness. In times of distress, friends and family were a palliative or at least distracting. But he was estranged from his family."

A great example of presenting an emotional reaction without making it sound like a clinical recitation of symptoms.

I asked Wortham about Sonny Hawke (his newest protagonist) who, in Hawke's War gets shot under the arm, falls off a cliff, and is essentially tortured by the bad guys who later capture him. Is the reader meant to suspend reality in terms of physical endurance? Wortham cited the basic need for human survival -- people push themselves to the limit to keep living. Wortham has also fallen off a cliff, so has some firsthand knowledge of that and plowing through cactus needles. Good research.

Apparently male protagonists survive such medical emergencies -- Hall's Teddy Fey (written with Stuart Woods) is a stunt-actor-cum-assassin who intended to fall five stories onto an inflated mat. His nemesis had poked it full of holes, so he landed on concrete -- and survived.
Peter Lovesey, Reavis Wortham, Elaine Orr

Lovesey doesn't create disabled characters for plot purposes. I asked him about his Theo Sinclair (in Rough Rules) who walked with a cane because of childhood polio. In a near final scene, an injured Sinclair is almost thrown into a hayloft while the murderer occupies himself below. Sinclair was able to watch as the killer dragged in another victim.If he hadn't been so encumbered, he would have tried to escape, thus precluding the chance of spying on his suspect.

What I Learned about Poisons

Toxicologis Luci Zahray is at Magna most years, and each time has more resources on the role of poisons in murder. If you think like a novelist, it's good to remember that the poisoner has to be able to handle the substance without harming themselves. It may take more skill than putting on latex gloves.

Thinking of poisoning someone with strichnyne? You pretty much have to want the recipient to die, as one of the few effective antidotes is an injected Benzodiazapine (such as Valium), which relaxes convulsions. It's unlikely a hospital would have enough to help. Even if an antidote works, your body temp likely would become so high that you'd die of organ failure within a few weeks. Ugh. 

Zahray had other 'suggestions.' How about putting a DMSO (Dimethyl Sulfoxide) in a water-soluble solution such as hand lotion? A poisoner could do that and be long gone before the victim became ill.

The best thing I learned was that you can buy some older poisons at antique stores. I've no plans to do so, but one of my future bad guys may well make such a purchase.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

The Brain Protects Us from Fear

I don't directly use personal life events in my writing, though of course I write from the perspective of my experiences. I've wrestled the last two weeks with whether to discuss one incident, and finally decided it could help others see a familiar face in the age of #MeToo.

First, I'm fine. What happened to me changed some personal  behavior, but not my life trajectory.

In my late twenties, I lived in a suburban neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland. Many evenings I took a brisk walk on the street that ran in front of my house -- a busy one.

One evening, a male jogger approached from the opposite direction. Nothing unusual. As he reached me, he stuck out one arm, roughly grabbed my left breast, squeezed, and then kept running. I stopped, but just for a second, before walking faster to get home. I feel certain that I didn't look back.

Home was a ranch house I'd bought to accommodate my mom's wheelchair, so she, my dad, and I lived together. I assume I did as most nights and said hello and went to my bedroom in the back of the house to change.

I do remember sitting on the bed, stunned, to process what had happened. (Such a neutral word, process.) After a short time, I began to think about what to tell the police.

Then reality hit. I could remember nothing about the man who groped me except that his hand was white.

Not. One. Other. Thing.

He had passed within inches of me five minutes prior. Was he clean-shaven or did he have a beard? Was he wearing shorts or longer pants? What color shirt? Tall or short? Solidly built or slim? Nothing. In retrospect, I suppose he had on a shirt, because I think (?) I would have remembered a bare chest.

Eventually I spoke to a therapist, but I didn't call the police. I should have, but I was embarrassed at how little I could tell them. I was a smart woman who had a responsible job, loving family, and lots of friends. I should have been able to describe the man.

I can't tell you the date other than it wasn't winter and had to be between mid-1979 and 1985, because that's when I lived in that house. I might figure out a date range because soon after I joined a health club. Why? Because I was afraid to walk on that street. I never did so again. The street in front of my own home.

The therapist explained that the lack of memory was my brain's way of protecting me. He said it more eloquently, but that was his essential point.

Like most assault survivors, I told few people. I had no guilt other than not remembering enough to tell the police. I didn't tell my parents because they would have been terrified every time I went into the front yard. The couple girlfriends with whom I discussed it were sympathetic, but we'd read worse stories in The Washington Post.

Eventually I stopped thinking about it ten or fifteen times a day, and then I 'only' thought about it when I read about someone else being groped.

Since the #MeToo movement, I've remembered it more often, but distance (and the lack of intense trauma) do not bring the emotional terror that many survivors of sexual assault feel. I'm still angry.
Two times is too many.

Why write this? I don't find it the least odd that Dr. Ford remembers few details of her assault. That she didn't want to tell her parents she'd attended a party with beer served makes perfect sense to me. And why would she talk about it a lot afterwards? Who wants to relive terrifying experiences?

I had the benefit of being in my late twenties and self-assured. I sometimes wonder if I sold that house after six years because, subconsciously, I wanted to be away from that event. Don't know, don't care to think about it anymore.

At least I have that option. The trauma others suffered is not so easily dismissed, and we all know what happens when they confront their assailants. #WhyIDidn'tReport


Monday, October 1, 2018

Hank Philippi Ryan Teaches in Indianapolis

Hank Phillippi Ryan's talk to the Speed City Sisters in Crime on September 29 stressed how structuring a book well can keep a reader turning pages. True, we know a book has a beginning, middle and end --and you try to write so people aren't looking forward to the end.

Thinking of those three segments as distinct acts with separate purposes is a useful way to plan a story (even if you don't do a detailed outline) or assess a draft. Ryan suggested these distinctions for a mystery or thriller. They apply to other genres as well.

Act 1:  Establishes key characters (especially the protagonist), the environment in which they operate, the problem to solve, and why it matters that the situation be resolved. The sleuth knows what she wants to accomplish and readers learn her values. The act ends with something that propels the book to Act 2.

Act 2: The problem the protagonist faces, and efforts to solve them, become even more important. Obstacles keep resolution at bay, and the reader finds twists and red herrings. In a mystery, the bad guy realizes the good guy is after him, and begins to obstruct efforts to find him. Characters evolve and subplots may become more prominent at times. At the end of the act, something huge happens.

Act 3: The highest level of dramatic conflict takes place. At some point the situation may appear hopeless, but eventually the protagonist overcomes the obstacles and the bad guy gets what's coming to him. The resolution has to make sense. If the reader is surprised because the author hasn't built in clues or laid groundwork for the mystery's resolution, the reader will feel cheated.

Two general points were: watch out for dialogue that is simply chatter rather than advancing the action; and give the reader visual pictures, as if they're watching a move. That doesn't mean describe every room or article of clothing in detail. A couple of pertinent brushstrokes can paint the picture.

Ryan peppered her presentation with examples from many books. My dry retelling of her talk doesn't do it justice.

Ryan offers regular advice on a multi-author blog, Career Authors. I reviewed a number of her articles, and found they usually address ways to keep the reader engaged -- through effective use of point of view, ensuring that unneeded conversation comes out of a draft, and ending chapters (especially the first) in a way to propel readers forward. Add your name to the site's mailing list for regular updates.

And do pick up a couple of her books, thinking as you read. Read once to follow the action, and a second time to think about why the characters and plot 'work.'

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Transitioning to Amazon KDP Paperback Publishing

Change in technology is hard, especially when you work alone and don't have office colleagues with whom to share practices. Amazon's new process to create paperbacks through KDP (rather than through the now-shuttered Create Space) is a lot to learn. It can be learned.

I've now done two books using the process. Here are a couple of observations.
  •  The transition process has been relatively smooth. I opted to let Amazon do it. All of my paperbacks now appear on my KDP bookshelf. You can indicate whether there is a Kindle book to which the paperback should be linked. This worked for all of my books except most of the large print versions. I'm not worried about this yet. I assume they will eventually link automatically, and if they don't, I can send a query that I know Amazon will handle.
  • Using the new process, when I accidentally loaded a six-by-nine inch version instead of the new five-by-eight version, the system noted this. Then KDP asked if I wanted them to try to auto-fit the old version into the new size. It worked perfectly! As I issue the new size for all my books, this means I can use the old size with just a few modifications (new ISBN and Library of Congress number, for example). Big time saver.
  • The Cover Creator process requires fewer steps and makes it easier to use the ebook version of your cover on your paperback. Initially I could not figure out how to change the font size for the back cover, sent a note to Amazon, and received a reply that font size could not be changed. After suggesting to the person who emailed me that larger font size is crucial for large print books, the next note said she would forward it up the line. I actually received a phone call within two days, saying font size can be changed and telling me how. Pretty impressive.
  • The first Amazon staffer sent me detailed instructions to design and upload my own cover. I could figure this out, but I prefer Cover Creator, and am now assured it will work for my large-print covers. 
  • Final note about covers. Cover Creator in CS and KDP are not compatible. If you used it in CS and want to revise, you have to do a new cover in KDP. The one you had on CS will continue to work, you just can't go in to make even a simple change.
  • The interior review process is now similar to the Kindle Preview process. Faster and easier to read.
  • While there is no stated staff review process and it appears you can order a print proof immediately, that's not quite how it works. You place a printed proof order, and it appears in your checkout cart. However, the order cannot be processed until you get an email from Amazon and you then have to order within 24 hours. If you don't, you have to start the proof order process over. I assume this is essentially a quality check, and that's fine. However, the 24-hour process can be tough if you don't have access to email while traveling (or have a life and don't check it a lot).
Technology changes, and while the switch to KDP Paperbacks has caused me consternation, it is simply another change to get used to. I'm going to adjust just fine.

I will add more observations, and will do another article on the steps involved in the process.

Happy writing.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Always Remember

I'm sure tens of thousands of notes, blog posts, and tweets begin with "always remember" on September 11th. I do one tweet that day, in memory of those who died. This year I put yellow roses with the words. Nothing can ever be adequate.

Two days after 9/11, I drove to a spot near the Pentagon (outside Arlington National Cemetery). I didn't go the day after, because we had a meeting of the Social Equity Panel at the National Academy of Public Administration. The late Phil Rutledge and I decided that if we canceled, we would be letting the terrorists win.

A small hillside in Arlington, Virginia had bouquets and messages to and from many, including this sign on the cemetery fence. I look at this photo every year.

The world came together to help the United States grieve. I will always remember that, too.
Elaine L. Orr

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Rereading Books

With all of the books in the world, it makes no sense to read some more than once -- but I do. Generally, they're books I like, such as Pompeii (Robert Harris), the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling), and nonfiction, such as In the Garden of the Beast (Erik Larsen).

Much of my reading is via audiobooks, since I'm in the car a lot. Several times in the last few years I've taken out a library CD a second time, because I didn't recognize the story (having read it years ago). I generally return it without rereading, but if I'm down to my last audio book, I'll listen again.

As I enjoy it a second time, I hear things I missed the first time  through. Sometimes I spot foreshadowing I didn't recognize, other times I'll realize the antagonist dropped hints I didn't pick up on. Louise Penny's and Daniel Silva's books are so rich I miss subtext sometimes. I recently bought Moscow Rules (Silva) at a library sale. I loved the book and plan to listen again on my next 1,000 mile drive.

So, apologies to the many authors whose books I've not read the first time. May some of your books become favorites when I do get to them.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Changes in Paperback Publishing at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

This morning, authors who publish with Create Space (an Amazon Company) received an email saying that Create Space would end and all paperback publishing and it would be done through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). Since Amazon began the paperback option on KDP, every author I know has assumed the consolidation would come. Amazon says it will use the same facilities and staff, so authors will not notice much difference.

Some authors have begun their migration. I decided to wait to see what would happen, and I'm glad I did. Amazon/KDP will do the migration for me. I need to remove one book sales channel (Create Space Direct, which let wholesalers buy bulk copies) and possibly raise the price slightly (in the UK and Europe) for a few of my shorter books.

David Gaughran wrote an info-filled article describing how authors can conduct the migration themselves. FYI -- customers will see no difference and books will be continually available.

It's hard to believe that just a few years ago Kindles cost $300 and if you wanted to self-publish a book, you worked with a local printer (usually) and had to buy hundreds to distribute yourself. I appreciate Amazon's innovations, and I enjoy owning a Kindle and a Nook.

Barnes and Noble also added a paperback function earlier this year, and I love it. The process is simple, I use a different ISBN for the BN edition, and it's easy for BN stores to order books for customers.

My favorite part of the BN experience is that you can prepare your cover in two phases (front and back) and BN adds the spine. This makes it easy to use the same cover that was on the ebook edition.

In many respects, we live in the best of times.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Speed City Sisters in Crime Chapter Presents "Deadbeat"

Sisters in Crime brings together authors, most of whom write books and short stories. The Speed City Chapter decided, about a year ago, to tackle writing a play to submit to IndyFringe, an Indianapolis festival that features several plays, each about forty-five minutes long. Deadbeat debuted August 16th.  

Chapter President Michael Dabney noted that, “Some 15 months ago, this play wasn't on any of our radars… Although not everyone took part in the writing, this truly has been a chapter project because the writing and storytelling were only the first steps. Many [members] helped with logistics, legal, marketing and promotions, graphics and designs, and in providing props. And without help in all those areas (and more), this production could never have seen the light of day.” 

Deadbeat had many writing cooks, working largely through the chapter's critique group, but they knew how to focus on the product and work as a team. The play was featured in the Indianapolis Star on August 17, 2017. 

Just as book authors are asked how they came up with an idea, that question is asked about Deadbeat. Brigitte Kephart described their writing starting point -- two women standing over the body of the husband of one of them, trying to figure out what to do with the corpse. (Photo features Abigail (Gabrielle Patterson at right) and Celeste (Alicia Sims). Provided by Michael Dabney.)

What dominates Deadbeat, however, is its comedic feel. The darker edge and harsh truths fold in easily," Kephart said.

The play has five more performances (through August 26th) at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair Street, Indianapolis.