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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 Check out Elaine's web page, sign up for her online classes, or receive her newsletter.

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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 Check out Elaine's web page, sign up for her online classes, or receive her newsletter.