Mystery Musings: My Brain’s BioRhythm

I’ve finally made it to my book’s last quarter, and as always, I looked at my plot points, and there weren’t enough to fill enough pages.  That’s a usual.  I think when I’m plotting, my brain can only come up with so many ideas and then it fizzles.  Pfft!  And I always overestimate how many pages I’ll get from each plot point.  WHY can’t descriptions flow for pages for me like some of my friends’ writing can?  Not padding.  All good.  But no, I write tight and can’t seem to expand as much as I’d like to.  So, it’s always back to the drawing board…or my version of an outline.  And I always have to reach the point where I panic before adrenaline makes my TINY gray cells think of a new twist or a little distraction to finish the story.

And just when I’m irritated with my Muse and my brain, it offers me a consolation prize.  Yup, last night, while I was fiddling with a scene, Ta Da!, an idea came for book 7 in my Jazzi series.  Then an idea came for book 8 and another one for book 9.  I scribbled them down and meant to push them away for another day, but book 7 wasn’t finished trying to tempt me.  And bless my subconscious, three different ideas came together in a swoop.  And a new character sprang to life to introduce as a recurring part of Jazzi and Ansel’s lives.

I’m crediting C.S. Boyack for the new character.  He’s been writing a series about the archetypes in stories for Story Empire’s blog, and his last post was about the Trickster.  You can find it here: https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2020/03/23/character-archetypes-the-trickster/

Now, forever ago, I wrote urban fantasy as Judith Post, and I wrote a three book series about a fallen angel.  Enoch was sent to Earth to clean up after his friend Caleb, who meant to join Lucifer’s rebellion, but Enoch tackled him and stopped him, thinking he’d save him from being thrown in the pit with the other rebels.  And he did save him from that, but Caleb was punished anyway.  He was thrown to Earth instead, and had a wonderful time spreading trouble and creating a new race of vampires.  The thing is, it’s hard to hate Caleb.  He’s a self-absorbed, careless Trickster, and I had a wonderful time writing him, so when C.S. Boyack did a post on them, I decided I wanted one in my cozy mysteries.  And bless my mysterious brain, it sent me a fun one to add to Jazzi’s stories.  If I can pull it off.  Tricksters aren’t so easy to write.  But I’m willing to give it a try.

I think every writer’s brain works with different chemical or inspirational impulses, but mine seems to work best when I least expect it.  Or when I panic.  Whatever triggers yours, I hope you find ideas and inspiration.  And happy writing!

Agatha Raisin

I’m a fan of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries.  Having a laidback constable who’s happy doing his job and staying where he is, with no pretentions of ambition, even though he’s devilishly clever and always solves a case, is a novel twist.  People often underestimate him, and that  works to his advantage.  It’s refreshing to read about someone who’s perfectly satisfied with his life.  At least, so far.  I’m way behind in the series.

M.C. Beaton also writes the Agatha Raisin mystery series, which can now be seen on Acorn TV.  Way back, when the early books first came out, I bought a couple and tried them.  And Agatha annoyed me so much, I couldn’t make myself read another one of them.  I went right back to my clever, amiable Hamish.  But recently a funny thing’s happened.  I ran out of shows in the Shakespeare and Hathaway series I enjoyed so much.  Ditto for the series Rosemary and Thyme.  The Queens of Mystery was even shorter with its witty narrator and sly humor.  I enjoy Longmire, but HH and I only watch one or two of those shows a week.  So we tried Bosch, but that show’s so depressing, we’re going to finish the first series and swear off it.  That led us to try Agatha Raisin on TV.  And we really enjoy it.

I was younger when I first tried Agatha.  I’m not sure if my sense of humor has changed, or if the TV shows appeal more to me than the books would.  And for me, it doesn’t matter.  I think I’ve found a good balance, watching Agatha and reading Hamish.  It lets me enjoy both sides of M.C. Beaton.

What about you?  Have you read M.C. Beaton?  Do you enjoy Agatha and Hamish, or do you prefer one over the other?

 

True Detective

My grandson is here on leave, staying with us this week.  We love watching TV together at the end of the day.  And this time, he came with his lap top so that we could watch the first season of True Detective together.  He’s been wanting me to see it for a long time, but it’s a lot more fun watching it when he’s here, because we’re those awful people who pause shows and yak about plot points and characters while we watch.  We’d never do that at a movie theater.  It annoys me when I pay to see a movie and people talk during it.  But at home, hey, it’s a whole different story.

We haven’t finished the series yet, but we started it last night and even HH got so hooked on it that we binge watched four episodes in a row until we were too tired to watch anymore.  The first thing I noticed was the show’s opening.  The music and images reminded me of the opening for True Blood.  Moody music.  Moody images that flash on screen.  You know, for sure, that you’re not going to watch a Hallmark movie.  And I don’t mean that as a put-down of either.  I happen to enjoy both.

The Long Bright Dark begins with the first body the detectives, Matthew McConaughey and Wood Harrelson, find.  And of course, the victim is staged.  Her naked body is kneeling and bent over with antlers tied to the top of her head and a “devil’s cage” made of twigs hanging over it.  She has stab wounds on her abdomen.  It looks like a ritualistic killing.  And after examining it, McConaughey declares that she isn’t the killer’s first victim.  There had to be more leading up to it.  Woody Harrelson doesn’t believe him but soon learns that his new partner might be odd, but he’s brilliant…and obsessive.

The combination of the new detective–an outsider–and the detective at home in his station and his home town–is used often, because it works.  It creates conflict between the protagonists to add to the conflict of the story’s plot.  And The Long Bright Dark does a great job of both.  Both characters are flawed but view life from really different angles.  McConaughey doesn’t believe in anything–religion, institutions, relationships; whereas, Harrelson is a married man who believes in family values, even though he rationalizes what that means so that he can sleep with someone else.  After all, gritty detective stories can’t have protagonists that are too happy, right?

Just like in the series True Blood, the story is set in Louisiana, and the poverty of many of the settings sets the tone for the serial killer who preys on women and children.  There’s a gritty texture that runs through every episode.  Our grandson keeps reassuring me that I’m going to like the ending of the show, and I hope he’s right, because it’s hard to tell how the protagonists are going to fare from one episode to the next.  And that’s a pretty awesome achievement, in and of itself.  The Long Bright Dark is done well.

 

Materialistic or Spiritual?

A wonderful man belongs to my writers’ group.  He’s a retired cop from Milwaukee, AND he teaches philosophy.  He’s writing a memoir about the experiences he had on the force from the time he was young and inexperienced to the time he retired, and his stories go from laugh out loud to deadly serious.  I love listening to him read when it’s his turn to share.

Since he has a philosophical bent, he told me that he believes most modern literature is materialistic, not spiritual.  I replied that I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.  But when he asked me why, I had a harder time coming up with an answer.  I’m not a fast thinker.  I have to ponder ideas and sort them.  But after pondering away, I haven’t changed my mind.  Maybe that’s because of the reading material I choose.

I read predominately mysteries, but I intersperse them with other genres.  And here’s what I think and the authors who’ve made me think it:

First, I don’t necessarily equate the spiritual with religion, just as I don’t necessarily equate justice with the law.  To me, being a spiritual person equates with trying to find the greatest good in ourselves, the divine.  And I’ll be honest.  I struggle with that, because I’m never sure exactly what I believe that means.  Anyway, here are my thoughts about the spiritual in literature:

I’ve only read two William Kent Krueger mystery/thrillers featuring Cork O’Connor–Iron Lake and Boundary Waters–but Cork wrestles with doing the right thing and balancing his Native American culture and beliefs with his Irish-Catholic upbringing.  Indian mysticism flavors everything in the stories.  Nature plays a powerful force.  The books are as much about Cork’s character as they are about surviving and catching the bad guys.

I’m a fan of Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby historical mysteries.  Kiera Darby survived a horrible first marriage.  In the 1830s, husbands OWNED their wives.  They could abuse them nearly any way they chose.  Sebastian Gage’s mother married beneath her, a commoner, and her family taunted and ridiculed young Sebastian.  When Kiera and Sebastian meet and fall in love, they both struggle to overcome their pasts and to treat those they meet, even their servants, even people who have wronged them, with respect.  They work to rise above the harsh lessons they’ve endured in life.  The quality of a person matters more to them than titles or wealth.  Is that a spiritual journey?  It feels like one to me.

But I’ve read lots of books where a plot revolves around people trying to find answers and overcoming their faults and shortcomings even while the main plot might rotate around a murder or romance.  M.L. Rigdon’s The Gracarin is a fantasy where the warrior Torak rules a country whose religion is based on nature and music, harmony, and where women are treated as equals.  He forms an alliance with another country that has a more structured religion, but the leaders of both worlds abhor debauchery, cruelty, and excess. They join forces to conquer the corrupt rulers of the wharf.  In many urban fantasies, the theme is good vs. evil.  Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series has an over arcing story question of Kate battling her father, who wants power for power’s sake.   Kate often doubts herself and her choices, which makes her journey all the more real.  Many mysteries star protagonists who try not to be stained by the bad people they battle.  They try not to stoop to their enemies’ levels.

In an extreme example, in Mark Lawrence’s fantasy, PRINCE OF THORNS, Jorg watched enemies kill his mother and young brother before they leave him for dead.  Worse, when he’s rescued and his father, the king, learns what has happened, he chooses not to go to war over the incident.  It would be too costly.  Angry and disillusioned, Jorg runs away and joins a band of ruffian misfits.  While he’s away, the king remarries, and when his new bride has a son, the king–his own father–wants Jorg dead.  Jorg does despicable things in the book, but it’s hard to hate him, because everyone else is worse, even the peasants.  Their hate is selfish and random.  Jorg’s enemies kill for land or profit, but Jorg kills to build an army strong enough to ultimately make him a ruler.  And he swears he’ll be a good one.  He has a conscience and a code of ethics, but they’re brutal by any standards.  But then, so are the times.  Jorg’s far from the spiritual journey most think of, but his struggles are real and beg the question: Does the end ever justify the means?  Everything in Jorg’s world is relative.  Does that preclude his journey from being spiritual?

I still don’t know if I have an answer to my friend’s question.  It’s possible I’m too practical to be philosophical.  Can a person be idealistic and practical at the same time?  I’m not sure.  But it was fun to consider the books I’ve read in a different light.  Any opinions you’d like to share?

 

 

Finishing Up

I’ve mentioned before that I rewrite as I go when I work on a book.  This time, for the Lux novel I’m working on, I felt as though I’d written too lean.  I have a habit of doing that.  So before I reached the last chapters, I went back and polished everything I’d already done.  I added a character because I thought the story needed it.  And as always, I added more description and details.  Then I read the first chapter to my writers’ group on Wednesday, and they wanted even MORE description.  I must have REALLY written lean this time:)

The result is, I think I’ve made this book too short, but that’s how I’d planned it when I started out.  I intended to self-publish it on Amazon.  When I write a Muddy River, I purposely aim for about 60,000 words.  I’ve said many, many times that I’m a plotter.  I’m not only a plotter, I pretty much know how many plot points I need to get the number of words I want.

For a Muddy River book, I write out 30 plot points.  30 plot points usually equate to 60,000 words for me.  IF, which I don’t, I wrote chapters that were at least 10 pages, I’d end up with 300 pages and close to 70,000 words, but many of my chapters are much shorter, sometimes only 6-8 pages, so I need the 30 points to reach the word count I want.  And 30 always have worked on Hester, Raven, and their supernatural friends.  So, when I sat down to plot Lux, I made myself come up with 30 ideas and an extra one for good measure.  But I don’t have as many descriptions and as many characters in this mystery.  Hester and Raven meet friends at Derek’s bar to discuss what’s happening, and they travel back and forth to interview people in other towns.  That doesn’t happen with Lux, so I’m coming up short on words.  I had to come up with a few extra ideas.  I could have FORCED each chapter to be longer, but then the writing would FEEL forced.  This book has a fast pace I like.  Right now, I’m at 50,000 words with three more plot points before I finish the story and I still need to polish the chapter I worked on today.  That will add words.  It always does, but I’m not sure I’m going to able to summon even 60,000 before I write The End.  No problem if I still planned to self-publish.

BUT, I like this book so much, I’d really like to find a publisher for it.  Most publishers want at least 70,000 words for a  mystery, though, and there’s NO WAY I’m going to make that.  To come up with a book that length, I plot out 40-45 plot points and end up with about 35 chapters.  I just don’t have enough to make Lux a longer book, and the thing is, I really like it the way it is.  I don’t want to tear it apart and rework it to make it longer.  So I have a dilemma.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do.  I’ve always believed in sending in stories I believe in, with the idea that my agent or editor can always turn me down.  And if they do, then I can self-publish.  But my fearless critique partner, M.L. Rigdon, swears I write sparse enough, she can find lots of places for me to expand descriptions that will make the book better and the right length.  I’ve learned an important lesson, though.  The next time I write a Lux novel, I’ll need more plot points just because her books don’t have as many  “down” times or “soft” scenes that my other books have.  They move faster, so they need more ideas to fill them.

Toward that end, I came up with a list to fill out before I start plotting my next one.  It should give me more characters to choose from and more things to keep in mind: (and remember, this is for mysteries):

  1.  Who’s killed (the first victim), or what is the crime?
  2.   Why is the crime committed?
  3.   Who commits it?  List how and when he commits it.
  4.   Who are the suspects?  At least two.  Why are they suspects?  Any more?
  5.   Any witnesses?  Innocent bystanders?
  6.   What’s the ending?  (I always know the ending before I start a book).
  7.   Any special clues or red herrings?  Any alibis or fake alibis?  Accusations?  (I don’t always know these before I begin and have to fill them in later).
  8.   A subplot (something going on with a character besides solving the murder)
  9.   A second subplot (smaller)

I usually don’t bother with answering all of these questions, but I’m going to make myself for the next Lux,  because I know now that I’m going to need them.

Whatever you’re working on, good luck and happy writing!

Setting

I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger.  He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book.  I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me.  When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  And he writes mysteries.  I like mysteries.

Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read.  The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage.  He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger.  His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did.  But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper.  Politics can get ugly.  For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers.  On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in.  Okay, enough said.  The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue.  I usually avoid books like that.  I’m glad I read this one.

Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story.  Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino.  The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter.  As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book.  So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.

The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone.  So does the understated writing.  Sparse, but telling dialogue.  Things left unsaid.  Blatant lies that flow like honey.  The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done.  But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold.  It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.

If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies.  Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.

There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing.  And I admired him for that.  All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better.  It’s a good book to study for style.  And it’s a great book to read for setting.

Happy Writing!

 

 

First comes love–but it’s bumpy– then..???

I’ve been reading more lately.  Some of the books are new series to me.  And most of them, no matter the genre, have a touch of romance in them.  How that plays out is interesting.

With the Jazzi Zanders series, I think I stayed pretty typical.  Jazzi, of course, stumbles across murders, but once she and Ansel met, they were always interested in each other, but the timing was never quite right.  At first, Jazzi was engaged to Chad, who ended up NOT being the one.  By the time she broke up with him, Ansel was living with Emily.  It wasn’t until they broke up that Jazzi and Ansel finally were both single at the same time.  And then things started heating up.

But how fast does an author want things to go?  I recently discovered J.D. Robb, and things got hot pretty fast in book one when Roarke and Eve meet.  They moved in together at the end of that book or the beginning of the next one (I can’t remember which).  And they finally made it official in book three.  Anna Lee Huber followed a similar pattern for Gage and Kiera in her Lady Darby series.  Lots of sparks in book one.  A deeper commitment in book two, and a marriage proposal by book three.  Book four shows Kiera biting her tongue as her sister does her best to make her and Gage’s wedding the talk of the ton, but they don’t finally say their vows until a novella between book four and five.  And then what?

For me, the books only got better as the authors balanced marriage with genre plot lines.  Couples who had solved crimes together before developed even more impressive  teamwork after they said their I do’s.  A civilian joined to a professional balance each other out well.  Jenna Bennett outdid herself in the Savannah Martin series when Savannah and Rafe not only got married but had a baby.  I was curious how Bennett would pull that off.  I mean, how does an amateur sleuth solve crimes, toting a baby carrier everywhere she goes?  But Bennett made it work, and she never made grand gestures of putting the baby in danger.  (That would have bothered me.)  But Savannah always worried about her child’s safety.

I talked to a fellow author who’s putting off having her hero and heroine become a couple because she thinks once the romance is done, the story goes flat.  But I don’t agree, not if the marriage is treated honestly and done well.  Look at the Kate Daniels urban fantasy series.  Once Kate and Curran join forces, they only grow stronger and can face more.

Now, I understand that life and timing can slow couples down.  That’s another matter.  When I first met my future DH, we were in college, and I was determined not to get married until I had my degree.  Unfortunately, DH went to a junior college, and the minute he graduated, he was drafted for the Vietnam war.  He didn’t want to make any promises once he was drafted because he didn’t think he was coming back.  Fortunately, he wasn’t in Vietnam very long.  A sniper shot him through both legs and he ended up in a hospital in Japan, then finished his draft time in Texas.  And he WAS lucky.  The bullet didn’t hit any bone or major blood vessels in either leg.  He came home alive and in one piece.  A lot of his friends didn’t.

But after surviving a bullet, the poor man made the fatal mistake of leaving the army and marrying me three days after he was discharged.  Out of the frying pan into the fire.  But life’s detours meant we’d known each other for four years before we finally tied the knot.  I know it can happen, but in stories, I’d rather it didn’t.  And if has to, I’d rather it was for a good reason, not just because the couple can’t make a commitment.

Regardless, once they take the step to be man and wife, I think the relationships, as well as the plot lines, can get even better.

September 23rd is the equinoz, the first day of Fall.  Enjoy it, and happy writing!