Surprise in Fiction: Trent’s Last Case

Surprise – noun — a completely unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement.

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Unsurprisingly, there’s been some research done on the science of surprise. I read this summary on Melissa Hughes’s blog.

There is science in surprise. Neuroscientists have discovered that surprise is one of the most powerful human emotions. As it turns out, the brain’s pleasure center (or the nucleus accumbens) lights up like a Christmas tree when you experience something that you didn’t expect. Not only do you get a nice boost of dopamine, the brain releases noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for focus and concentration. Think of it as the reset button for the brain. It actually stops all of the other brain activity to let you find meaning in the surprise.

An article on sciencedaily.com highlights the work of neuroscientists Dr. Gregory Berns and Dr. Read Montague who ran experiments that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water.

“Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like,” said Montague.

“However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.”

 

Given this data, maybe we authors should look closely at the element of surprise in our works. If we can cause the reader’s brain to suddenly experience a pleasurable shot of dopamine, we will have captured their attention and their loyalty.

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“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” — Julia Cameron

* * *

When we read a mystery novel, we expect to be surprised. All those twists and turns are designed to keep our attention. When the shy, gentle woman suddenly pulls a gun out of her purse, or the disconnected nerd leaps into the line of fire to save a stranger, we love it.

According to an essay on thenetwriters.com,

The importance of surprising your readers should never be forgotten by any aspiring writer. In fact, it should always be considered a vital part of a storyteller’s toolkit. By seeking to confound your audience with plot twists, subverting the reader’s expectations with ‘the element of surprise’ can often allow you to heighten dramatic tension in your story, add suspense, or introduce humour.

Mystery readers, though, are a fairly sophisticated bunch. Most dedicated mystery readers have a sense of the story. We’re accustomed to surprises in the form of strange clues and red herrings to distract us from figuring out who the real culprit is. Complex twists and turns are part of a good mystery, but readers know that no matter what surprises or unusual events are thrown at the amateur sleuth, she will eventually solve the mystery and save the day.

However, I read a book recently that took a couple of turns I didn’t expect. (Note: spoilers in the paragraphs below.)

* * *

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley was published in 1913 and is widely respected as one of the first, if not the first, modern detective novel. Agatha Christie called it, “One of the best detective stories ever written.” It was dedicated to Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton who encouraged him to write it and, maybe unsurprisingly, called it, “The finest detective story of modern times.”

The story begins when the body of a very unlikeable financial magnate, Sigsbee Manderson, is found by one of his servants, and there is concern that his death might shake up the financial markets  When the editor of an influential newspaper hears of the probable murder, he calls on the charismatic Philip Trent, an artist who is also a freelance reporter and amateur sleuth, to help solve the case. Highly respected by the police authorities, Trent seems to have the intellectual acuity of Sherlock Holmes since we’re told nothing can escape his astute powers of observation. (It turns out this is an intended comparison.)

There are the usual suspects in the case: the beautiful widow, the unhappy uncle, and various others who had reasons to do away with the unpleasant Mr. Manderson. And there is an abundance of strange clues to keep the reader busy trying to put the puzzle together. Not to worry, though. Trent puts his considerable analytical skills to work and comes up with a brilliant theory that satisfies all the clues. The only problem is that he has fallen in love with Manderson’s widow, and he believes she was having an affair with one of her husband’s employees who subsequently murdered Manderson.

Trent writes his dispatch to the newspaper editor but doesn’t send it. Unwilling to implicate the woman he loves, he gives the dispatch to the widow, leaves the site of the crime, and accepts a freelance reporting assignment in another country..

Surprise #1: Trent’s solution to the mystery comes just a little after the midpoint in the book. That threw me since I’m accustomed to the reveal coming in the last chapter. I read on, curious to see how the author would continue the story. Will the widow turn out to be a scheming murderer who hunts down Trent and kills him? Will she and her lover taunt Trent with his unwillingness to accuse them?

Several chapters later, we discover:

Surprise #2: The widow wasn’t involved. Trent was wrong.

Very clever, Mr. Bentley. You led me down the garden path, convinced that Trent could not make a mistake because he was modeled on the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes.

It turns out E.C. Bentley was not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he intended Trent’s Last Case to show the amateur sleuth as a fallible human, not a flawless reasoning superhero. But I didn’t know that when I began reading the book, and my expectations set me up for a few surprising plot twists.

There are a couple of other surprises in the book, but I won’t reveal them here in case anyone wants to read the story. Even though Bentley employs an early 20th-century style of writing that is no longer popular, the story is enjoyable and stands the test of time.

* * *

“I love surprises! That’s what is great about reading. When you open a book, you never know what you’ll find.” –Jerry Spinelli

* * *

An interesting postscript: I uploaded this post to the TKZ site last week. Over the weekend, my husband and I had lunch with a fellow author who was telling us about a book he recently read: Fade Away by Harlan Coben. Although I hadn’t said anything about my TKZ post, our well-read friend said the thing he loved about the book was that it held many surprises. So there you have it. The proof is in the pudding.

So TKZers: Have you read Trent’s Last Case? What books have you read that took you by surprise? How do you include elements of surprise in your books?

* * *

Private pilot Cassie Deakin is in for a string of surprises when she lands in the middle of a murder mystery. Even Fiddlesticks the cat takes on a new persona that’s shocking.

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.

 

The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette

The two previous Words of Wisdom dealt with story lengths shorter than the novel: the short story and the novella. Today’s post, though not a Words of Wisdom one, will continue with a look at the “black sheep” of the short form, the novelette. While the novelette is recognized in various science fiction awards as a discrete length, this is not true for mystery and thriller, hence the “black sheep” in this post’s title.

Length-wise, short stories are usually defined as running from 2000-7500 words, while the novella is often defined as running from 20,000-40,000 words in length. Short stories are the typical length in many online magazines, and in story anthologies. Story anthologies can include longer lengths, of course, ranging into the novella length. But, in general, there’s a divide between the two forms.

The novelette lives in that divide, running between 7500 words and 20,000.

Masterclass discusses what distinguishes a novelette from a novella:

In terms of storytelling ambition, novelettes tend to split the difference between novellas and shorter forms like short stories. Novelettes tend to have a greater focus on character development, worldbuilding, and plotting than short stories. However, the stories are generally more concise and focused than a novella-length work, as the word count is often too restrictive to tell a long story. [The full post can be found here.]

Our very own James Scott Bell has written a number of novelettes, including the Force of Habit series and Trouble is My Business, each six novelettes long. In his March 3, 2013 KZB post, Jim touches on the novelette and its value in helping you train as a writer:

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I’ve been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. He goes on to discuss other aspects of his novelette—the post is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

In the Science Fiction field a novelette is defined as running from 7500 to 17,500 words.

The late science fiction grand master James Gunn felt that the novelette was the perfect length for science fiction: long enough to allow the writer to fully explore an idea but not so long as to become caught up in a plot that might be so complex and lengthy as to overshadow the exploration of that idea:

“Although there are some great SF novels, there are far more great SF novelettes, which embody the substance of a novel without taking on its burden to solve the problem it lays out.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Jim Gunn about this when I was at the University of Kansas for a two-week novel writing workshop in 2013. As a long time anthologist, editor and writer he was passionate that this was the case.

I feel the same might be true for mystery, especially the locked room variety. The novelette length is long enough to delve into a clever mystery and explore it without having to go to even the extent of plotting and number of characters a novella does. At the same time, there’s more room for characterization and world building then in a true short story.

In mystery or thriller, neither the novelette or the novella are mentioned in awards categories. The Edgar Awards short story category covers stories that run from 1,000 to 22,000 words. The International Thriller Writer Awards simply says that to be considered a short story it must be less than 35,000 words.

***

Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense film, The Birds, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name. In the novelette, the story is centered on Nat Hocken, a disabled WW2 veteran who works for a local farmer. Set on the windswept Cornish coast during a bleak autumn, Nat soon finds evidence of birds acting strangely, pecking at his bedroom window, and when he opens it, attacking him. At the same time, the autumn has turned a bitter, dry cold. Soon Nat notices gargantuan flocks of gulls riding the waves at sea, seemingly biding their time. What follows is a building horror as Nat realizes his family, and his community is under threat, and he takes steps to warn others and protect his family.

The POV is kept on Nat, and the focus on coordinated actions of the birds. The novelette takes place over three days. Radio broadcasts let Nat and the reader both know that the bird attacks are widespread, throughout the U.K., and perhaps the world, but we stay with Nat the whole time. The arc of the novelette is in Nat and his family’s evolving situation, as he becomes aware of the threat, and attempts to save his family and warn others.

I’ve published three novelettes, “Siloed,” which appeared in the Street Spells urban fantasy anthology, “Running Tangent,” co-written with K.C. Ball, which was published in the July 2015 issue of Perihelion Science Fiction, and the cozy mystery novelette, “Farewell, My Cookie,” which I published on BookFunnel last August. All three were in the range of 10-11,000 words. Both “Siloed” and “Farewell, My Cookie,” take place over the course of a single evening, while “Running Tangent” occurs over a longer span of time.  I find novelette length ideal for briskly paced stories that took place over just a few hours.

For me, the novelette’s allowing more space for characterization, exploring an idea or a world and more room for plot than a short story while being more concise than a novella makes it a form worth considering.

How about you?

  1. Have you read novelettes? If so, do you have any favorites?
  2. Have you written novelettes?
  3. Do you think the novelette length worth writing for mystery, especially locked room or puzzle stories?

Unpacking Suspense with Agent Zach Honey

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Writing conferences are a mix of exhilarating and exhausting, inspiring and overwhelming, work and play.

Terry Odell and I recently attended the Flathead River Writers Conference. In today’s and tomorrow’s posts, you’ll hear about the experience from each of us. Terry also tried out her new Olympus camera and will hopefully share scenic shots tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here are a few photos from the conference taken by other guests:

Susan Purvis and Debbie Burke at the book table

 

No, this isn’t a stick up. Dr. Erika Putnam leads the audience in exercises to alleviate “writer’s slump” from hours bent over the computer.

 

 

 

Author/storyteller Chris La Tray is Montana’s Poet Laureate who starts each morning by reading the tattoo on his arm—a challenge from Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

It reads: “Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

Does that sound a little like writing? 

A young writer shares her story with a friend. Isn’t this what conferences are all about? 

A couple of days before the conference, Terry arrived from Colorado to check out this corner of Montana. On Thursday, we drove around Flathead Lake, while showers and sunshine played tag.

On Friday, the sun won out over showers. In Glacier National Park, snow closed the higher elevations of Going-to-the-Sun Road so we didn’t make it up to Logan Pass (6000+ feet) to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep. But we visited Lake McDonald, waterfalls, and the historic lodge. Any day at Glacier is a good day.

As a Montanan, I performed my sworn, sacred duty to introduce Terry to huckleberry-peach pie and huckleberry chocolate.

Literary agent Zach Honey

Now to the conference highlights from one of the guest agents, Zach Honey of FinePrint Literary Management.

Zach was born in Greensboro, NC and raised in Montana, leading to an affinity for both sweet tea and waist-deep snow. He specializes in thrillers in rural settings because of the potential for dark, scary adventures in remote, isolated locations.

Zach gave a talk about the elements of suspense that’s tailor-made for the crime dogs of TKZ. He kindly agreed to allow me to unpack his presentation. Thanks, Zach!

Suspense and mystery apply to all stories in all genres.

Why does the reader keep turning pages?

Why does the listener lean toward the person telling the story?

Why does the viewer keep watching the movie?

To find out what happens next. 

Suspense contains three elements:

  1. Hope – where the reader experiences pleasure about the prospect of desirable events.
  2. Fear – where the reader experiences worry about undesirable events.
  3. Uncertainty – the cognitive imbalanced state of not knowing the outcome of events.

When readers feel a close connection to a character, esp. the POV character, they hope for a good outcome for that character and fear the danger that threatens the character.

Villainous characters also need to connect with readers, although it’s a different type of connection. Readers are intrigued and fascinated by evildoers. That interest can be deepened and made more complex by incorporating backstory. Why is the villain willing to or driven to step over the line? Will s/he get away with it?

Suspense can be short term for the duration of a scene or long term sustained over the entire book or film.

Types of suspense:

 Mysterious suspense – Info is withheld from the reader.

Horrific suspense – Something bad will happen. Often a tragic ending. Examples: Stephen King, Dean Koontz.

Romantic or comedic suspense – Something bad will happen that may also be funny/entertaining and usually leads to a happy ending.

Paradox of suspense: Suspense contains an inherent paradox because readers or film viewers often know the end beforehand. Knowledge of the end should preclude suspense, yet it doesn’t.

Readers continue to read despite knowing who the murderer/villain is.

Photo credit: Laura Loveday, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

People who’ve watched Psycho multiple times still jump at the shower scene.

That leads to the question: Why does someone who already knows the outcome still feel suspense?

Zach offered these theories:

Moment by moment forgetting – the reader/viewer is so caught up in the present tense moment that they temporarily forget the outcome.

Desire/frustration theory of suspense – The reader/viewer feels frustrated because they want to change the outcome of an imminent event, but they can’t. That’s why the movie audience shouts, “Don’t go down in the basement!” Of course, the character inevitably does and meets their doom.

Zach cited Alfred Hitchcock as the renowned master of suspense. Hitch defined differences between mystery and suspense:

Mystery is an intellectual process.

Suspense is an emotional process.

Mystery requires withholding information from the reader/viewer.

Suspense requires giving information to the reader/viewer.

A classic example is the bomb under the table.

In mystery, only the character who placed the bomb knows it’s there. None of the other characters nor the reader is aware of it. When it explodes, it causes immediate surprise and shock.

In suspense, the reader knows the bomb is about to go off, but the characters don’t know. The reader’s knowledge leads to excited, horrified anticipation of the disaster that’s about to happen. Five minutes of suspense delivers five seconds of surprise/shock.

When the reader or audience has more information than the character does, that also causes dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony has great impact on the reader. The combination of the intellectual process (knowledge of what happens next) together with the emotional process (the fear, hope, uncertainty of what happens next) delivers an effective power punch for authors to exploit.

Additional tools:

Raise the stakes – what will be lost if the hero fails?

Lower the hope – what if the hero can’t succeed b/c their abilities or resources are reduced?

Foreshadowing – creating dread for something that may happen in the future.

A big thank you to Zach Honey for explaining the mystery of suspense.

~~~

Stop by tomorrow to read Terry Odell’s impressions of the Flathead River Writers Conference.

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TKZers – what is your favorite technique for building suspense in your stories? Are any of the tools that Zach mentioned new to you? If so, do you want to experiment with them?

~~~

 

 

Suspense is high but the price is low for Debbie Burke’s latest thriller Deep Fake Double Down. Only $.99 at this link.

Getting Cozy

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” – Neil Armstrong

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What is a cozy mystery? And how has this popular sub-genre evolved over time? Since fellow TKZ contributor Dale Ivan Smith and I both write cozies, we thought it would be fun to co-write a post on the subject.

WHAT MAKES A MYSTERY “COZY?”

These are the basic “rules” as I understand them:

  1. No explicit violence.
  2. No explicit sexual content.
  3. Usually, no profanity. But if there is any, it’s mild.

Although there are many variations, a cozy mystery often involves a murder that has taken place “off stage” before the story begins. The mystery is usually presented as a puzzle where the reader tries to figure out the solution along with the protagonist.

This quote from an article on novelsuspects.com sums it up nicely:

“Overall, cozy mysteries are the perfect mix of smart, thoughtful stories that challenge you to think as you read while also being a relaxing escape from everyday life.“

HISTORY

Mysteries have been around for a long time. The first mystery novel is usually identified as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published in 1859. But Agatha Christie changed the landscape in 20th century.

According to an article on the website of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library in Mansfield, Ohio:

“Agatha Christie is usually credited with being the (unintentional) mother of the cozy mystery genre with her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series. The term “cozy” was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.”

* * *

Since its inception, the cozy mystery genre has evolved, and a few new trends have grown up around it. For example, many of today’s cozies have paranormal elements you wouldn’t have found in the mid-20th century. It also isn’t unusual for stories to center around food or pets.

Book covers have also morphed to reflect a more playful approach, and many titles have become something of a pun contest. To the best of my knowledge, the images shown below were the first edition covers. Consider how things have changed from the 20th century …

… to the 21st century:

* * *

Over to Dale to give us background on the cozy narrative:

We’re so often advised to begin with action. However, cozies tend to call for the grounding of the reader in the character’s background and setting right at the start, to help give that cozy feel and connect the reader with our heroine. The heroine is often introduced in a summary of who-the-character is fashion, rather than an in-media-res opening that other mysteries might.

Often we also learn how she arrived at this point in her life—perhaps she just went through a divorce, or lost a job, and moved to the small community, possibly inheriting a business and meeting a character who will be significant in their life. If they are already established, like in Jenn McKinlay’s Books Can Be Deceiving, the first of her Library Lovers series which opens with the Thursday “Crafternoon” group meeting at the library.

The murder can occur in the opening, but often occurs later, and serves as the gateway to Act II. While the opening of a cozy often establishes the world before the murder, the discovery of a body puts the sleuth on a quest to restore order to her little world. The heroine will follow an “arc of suspicion” where she uncovers secrets that may lead to the actual crime, or may be a red herring, and she will be looking for the motive.

The police are on the wrong trail when it comes to finding the murderer, so it is up to the amateur sleuth to find the true culprit. Often a friend, relative or other innocent is arrested. A police arrest of an innocent may occur at the midpoint, and/or the person the sleuth believed was the murderer themselves is killed, or something else that sends our heroine’s investigation on a new course.

She sifts through competing ideas (theories) about what was behind the murder, until she finds a crucial clue or insight which leads her to the revelation and confrontation with the killer. Just before this climax of the book, circumstances and/or choices she makes isolate her from her friends and allies.

As the investigation continues, it is counterbalanced with a cozy subplot, such a baking competition, parade, event at the library etc. which the main character is involved with, until the isolating nature of the investigation pushes her away from that cozy storyline.

There is often also a slow-burn romance. In H.Y. Hanna’s English Cottage Garden series Poppy has a slow-burn mutual attraction, alternating with frustration, for her neighbor, a crime writer, who also helps her at times in solving the mystery. Each book features a moment where the two draw together in attraction other, but another moment or moments were they are pushed apart by a disagreement or other conflict.

Humor in a cozy mystery serves to lighten the mood and up the fun quotient of the story, often surprising the reader right after a plot turn or a revelation, though things get serious as we head into Act III and the confrontation with the murderer. But often comedy returns at the end, when we have a scene or even a short sequence of scenes validating the restoration of order to the community.

So, TKZers: Do you read cozy mysteries? Tell us about your favorite books and authors.

 

 

It’s a Mystery!

When I was writing my first novel, a friend asked what kind of book it was. I said it was a cozy mystery, but she didn’t know what that was, so I explained, “It’s a mystery with no explicit violence, no explicit sexual content, and usually no profanity. After her cheerful, “I guess you realize there’ll be no audience” response, I pretended to smile. (I get that remark a lot.)

But then I got to thinking. Many, if not all, of Agatha Christie’s works fall into the category I had explained to my friend, as do Dorothy Sayers’ books. Why aren’t they considered cozies? So here I am, several novels down the road, and I wonder if I should revisit this whole genre thing.

* * *

Dictionary.com defines a mystery as “a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end.”

The search for a definitive list of mystery subgenres was more complicated than I thought it would be. Mysteries can be subdivided in many different ways depending on the point of view of the person defining them. I found an article I liked on the website of the Handley Regional Library System, and I’ve used that as a basis for this list. (Please note this is not intended to be an exhaustive description of the genre. I’ve combined some of my own opinions with those I’ve found in articles on the subject.)

* * *

Classic Mysteries can be exemplified by Agatha Christie’s works. There is a crime, usually a murder, and the story is concerned with identifying the killer(s). Classic mysteries, like cozies, generally don’t include any explicit violence or sexual content, and there’s usually no profanity. Some of the notable entries in this category are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Cozy Mysteries can be seen as a subset of classics. As noted above, cozies also don’t contain explicit violence or sexual content and rarely use profanity. The action usually takes place in a small village or on a university campus. Cozies almost always have an amateur sleuth who becomes involved in the case and may solve it. (But then, wasn’t Miss Marple an amateur sleuth?) Over the years, cozies have evolved, and current examples may include paranormal elements, animals helping solve crimes, or other unusual aspects. (This is why I wondered if my books are in the wrong category.) M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series and the Murder, She Wrote series are examples of this subgenre.

 

Hardboiled or Noir Mysteries – These two subgenres that were very popular in the 30’s and 40’s seem to be interchangeable. They’re often characterized by a no-nonsense detective who battles the creeps and criminals in an urban environment. According to the Handley Regional Library blog, “Noir protagonists are complex characters who are flawed, risk takers and often self-destructive.” Makes one immediately think of Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe: “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Or Dashiell Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade. Michael Connelly is quoted as saying, “Chandler credited Hammett with taking the mystery out of the drawing-room and putting it out on the street where it belongs.”

 

Police Procedural Mysteries focus on the investigation process of a police officer or officers. There are several in this subgenre that I like: The Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French, the Bosch series by Michael Connelly, and The Dry by Jane Harper.

 

Capers are a kind of mystery where the reader is in on the crime. I don’t know a lot about this subgenre, but the description sounds like some likeable criminals who pull off a crime and fool the inept authorities. One example in this category is William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 

There are other subgenres that I discovered, including True Crime, Legal Thrillers, Howcatchem (the opposite of Whodunit), Historical, and Locked Room. But there’s so much crossover between subgenres that it’s hard to pigeonhole a book into just one area.

So I’m still not sure how to refer to my books. For now, I’ll just stick with Mystery.

* * *

So TKZers: What subgenre of mystery do you prefer? Who’s your favorite author or authors? If you write mystery, what subgenre are you in?

 

The Watch Mysteries: Books 1-3

Fun Hunting A Killer

Fun Hunting A Killer
Terry Odell

Hunt a Killer

(No, I haven’t forgotten that it’s St. Patrick’s Day. More about that at the end of this post).

Thanks to stumbling across a friend’s post on Facebook, the Hubster and I discovered a new project. We’d gone the jigsaw puzzle route, but this was something different.

What are we doing? Solving a murder. It’s called Hunt A Killer. What is it? A detective game. You can play alone or with others.

Here’s the setup:

Private investigator Michelle Gray needs your help with yet another perplexing mystery. A woman named Julia Adler has recently found a mummified corpse in the attic of her family-owned theater. The remains belong to the famed actress Viola Vane, who notoriously disappeared in 1934. Now that Vane’s body has been unearthed after decades, you can finally investigate the million-dollar question: Who orchestrated the vanishing of Viola Vane?

Here’s how it works:

Each episode ends with your action to piece together another aspect of the overall mystery. In Curtain Call, this isn’t just about finding evidence and eliminating suspects. You’ll be called upon to uncover all aspects of the case – including the suspects’ secrets and their relationships to Viola, as well as to one another. Follow your contact’s assignments to advance the investigation, but examine every document closely to reveal the full story of the Cadence Theatre.

Hunt A KillerOnce a month, for six months, we get a box of evidence and clues. Of course, some will be red herrings. Each box comes with an objective. For box one, it was to determine the murder weapon. We sifted through forensics reports, newspaper clippings, theater programs, stage notes. There are more clues on the website dedicated to each crime. Of course, finding the monthly objective isn’t enough, because each month’s evidence will build on the previous months’.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve set up a murder board (honestly, I think this is what convinced the Hubster this could be fun), solved different kinds of ciphers, started a timeline, come up with potential suspects, worked on the relationships between everyone…and there’s more.

Since this is an 80-year-old case (created for the game), there are no survivors who can answer questions. We have to rely on what’s in our evidence boxes, or on the website where some more transcripts and pictures might be hiding more clues. Oh, and there are Facebook groups for each episode where people can ask questions if they’re stumped. It’s moderated to avoid spoilers.

Did the forensic anthropologist leave out relevant information? Who wrote the rehearsal notes? Is the shopping list jotted in the middle of those notes a clue? Do the dog roses refer to an incident in the play as an inside joke for the cast and crew, or will they be important? What about the letters to “Dear Dorothy” in the newspaper clipping? Why did the understudy take over Viola’s role? There’s a ton of information to sift through, and this is only box 1!

In addition to the game itself, they give you drink recipes and a Spotify playlist to get you in the mood. And gifts. We got a cocktail recipe book and two copper mugs.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve been having as much fun testing the libations as we have trying to interpret evidence.

We’ve only completed the first box so I can’t go into much more detail. If you want to move faster, there’s the option to expedite the next box once you’ve met the objective, but we’re letting things play out on the monthly schedule because there’s so much more to ferret out. I’m not going to go into specifics about what we’ve discovered in case anyone here at TKZ wants to give this a try. If you’re writing mysteries, you should already have the mindset for crime solving, and it’s a great way to keep those deductive processes honed.

Disclaimer: I’m sharing this because the Hubster and I have been having so much fun, and I thought some TKZers might like to know about it. (Of course, there are probably a bunch of you out there who wonder why I’m so late to the party.) I get nothing from the company for talking about their program.

St. Patrick's Day

As promised: Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought you might be interested in how it’s celebrated in Northern Ireland, where my daughter lives. Hint: There’s no green beer.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

Mystery Movies

As the holidays approach, we may be looking for gifts that appeal to writers. In my house, movies are always welcome. Besides the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, here are some of my favorites in the mystery genre or movies involving writers. A happy ending is a must for my taste. This list does not include TV series or the Hallmark Channel mystery movie collection.

movies

AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.
One of my all-time favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them.

DROWNING MONA with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
A funny whodunit in a small town with a wacky cast of characters.

GOSFORD PARK with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam.
An English drawing room mystery in the grand fashion that takes place at a country estate. Aristocrats and servants alike have secrets that slowly unravel during a hunting party weekend. Albeit a bit slow-paced, this film requires repeat viewings to catch the nuances.

HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova.
A hilarious escapade wherein mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falls for a suspected murderess while searching for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, is he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that ensue truly accidents, or is he next in line for her lethal highjinks?

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
A Manhattan housewife thinks her next door neighbor is a murderer. She enlists her friends to search for clues. Probably my favorite Woody Allen film out of all of them.

MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan.
English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise, but when he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty?

MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays.
A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help to solve a real murder.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Christopher Russell.
A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal.

FLOWER GIRL (Hallmark Channel Movie)
This is a classic romance with an element of mystery. The heroine has to choose between two suitors: a staid lawyer approved by her mother, and a writer who answers evasively whenever she asks about his work. Guess who she’ll pick? The revelation at the end is reminiscent of American Dreamer.

What are some of your favorite films involving murder mysteries or writers? Note: I am on a cruise and will not be able to respond, but you can make suggestions and I’ll check back later.

Waste Not, Want Not

by Brad Parks, award-winning mystery writer

– Note from Jodie: I sold my house (Yay!) and am busy planning my cross-country move, editing a great new thriller for our own Joe Moore and his co-author, Lynn Sholes, and preparing a webinar to present at a cyber conference, so it was perfect timing when Brad Parks contacted me about guest posting on TKZ. – Take it away, Brad!

It was the great and revered mystery author P.D. James who once said, “Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”

I mention this because, one, it makes me sound well-read and erudite. And, two, because it is exactly the kind of soft-headed, touchy-feely, writer-as-artiste horse-apple I used to completely dismiss.

Of course things that happen to a writer are wasted. I mean, when I was a newspaper journalist I had to write whole stories about peoples’ reaction to the weather (“Boy, is it hot,” said Robert Smith of Manalapan. . . “I’m soooo cold!” said Sarah Jones of Weehawken). Believe me, those are dead brain cells I will not get back.

I think up until recently, I would have been ready to tell P.D. James to take her nothing-is-ever-wasted aphorism and stick it on a poster with kittens, because real writers don’t think of themselves as artists but, rather, as craftspeople. We use a well-honed set of tools – our sense of story, our intuition about human nature, a facility with language and prose, etc. – to craft thrilling tales of suspense. We don’t go in for all that navel-gazing, namby-pamby hogwa…

… And then along came this book. It’s called THE PLAYER, the fifth in my series featuring sometimes-dashing investigative reporter Carter Ross.

I was throwing a few notes together for various talks I’ll be giving at bookstores and libraries in the coming months and I remembered that, back when I started writing it, I thought of it as a book that dealt with the subject of brownfield redevelopment – that is, the cleaning of contaminated sites to make them suitable for new construction.

(Mind you, I no longer call it a book about brownfield redevelopment, because I’d actually like to sell a few of them. When you say “brownfield redevelopment,” peoples’ eyes get glassy. I now call it a book about toxic waste and the mob).

Anyhow, just for kicks, I went back and looked at some of the clips I had written about this subject back when I was a reporter. I tripped across this one story from 2007. It was about an abandoned landfill in Edison, New Jersey that was being eroded away by the Raritan River. The result was that every time the river rose – every rainstorm, every high tide – fifty-year-old trash was being swept into the current.

It was unhealthy, unsanitary, and a major eyesore. And yet because the original owner of the landfill was no longer around, there was no money to clean it up. Basically, the only hope for this dreadful little patch of earth was if a developer came along and decided to build a golf course there – or an office park, or whatever.

When done well, this is actually a great win-win. The contamination gets cleaned up. The developer gets some free land. It’s all good. But of course in the name of journalistic balance you always have to find someone to sound a note of alarm and remind readers that something that sounds too good to be true sometimes is. So I interviewed this environmentalist named Bill Wolfe. Here, I quote from what I wrote:

Wolfe said old landfills have been known to leach benzene, TPC, TPE, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium – a laundry list of killer chemicals. He calls redevelopment schemes “madness.”

“What should have been a public enterprise – cleaning up old landfills – has become a private, for-profit, economically driven enterprise,” Wolfe said. “It really is asking for a disaster.”

When I re-read that not long ago, I was agog. It was the thesis of THE PLAYER, stated in two succinct paragraphs. And I had completely forgotten that I ever wrote it. It was just fifty-six words buried near the bottom of a 1,800-word story. Since it published, I have written hundreds of other articles, to say nothing of a pile of full-length novels. We’re talking about something that was roughly a million words in my rearview mirror. I had no shot of remembering it.

But it was obviously rattling around in my head somewhere. And it managed to leak out onto the page and form a novel. Apparently P.D. James was onto something.

(Oh, incidentally, I did look up Bill Wolfe and sent him a copy of THE PLAYER. I figured it was the least I could do).

Now, maybe for some of you who are more enlightened on this subject, this connection between what you do and what you write isn’t news. For me, it’s been something of a revelation. It’s not that I’ve given up on my view that writers are craftspeople. It’s that I’m opening myself up to the idea that we’re artists, too.

I find myself living more consciously, being more aware of what I’m reading, who I’m talking to or what I’m seeing – because you never know when that article, that conversation or that experience will inform your future scribbling.

After all, nothing that happens to a writer is ever wasted.

Brad Parks is the only author in history to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His latest book, THE PLAYER, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. RT Book Reviews made it a Top Pick for March, saying, “Parks has quietly entered the top echelon of the mystery field.” Visit him at www.BradParksBooks.com.

Release Day!

Today is the official release date for Shear Murder, my ShearMurder (518x800)tenth Bad Hair Day mystery, so you’re going to have to put up with my shameless self-promotion. That’s the trouble when we authors must toot our own horns. We get as tired of talking about Me as you do hearing about it. Lately I’ve been clogging the loops and social networks with my blog tour announcements. I want to make it worthwhile for my hosts by getting a crowd on days when I guest post. But it means I am constantly tweeting and FB’ing and listing my tour dates and topics. I sent out one email newsletter to my fans already and will send another blast next month on my book’s official sale date.            

What? You thought I said today was the release date? Indeed, I did. However, for this publisher, that means the books are shipped from the warehouses today. They’ll be ready in the bookstores on February 8, the actual “on sale” date. Confusing, isn’t it? It was a lot less so with my prior publisher, who just had one pub date. As it is now, I’m not sure which day to urge fans to buy the book. Does it really matter anymore?

Here are a couple of sample interview questions from my online blog tour:

Tell us about your latest book.

Shear Murder is the tenth book in my Bad Hair Day mystery series. It’s the culmination of a personal journey for my hairstylist sleuth, Marla Shore. It’s about weddings and new beginnings. Just when Marla is planning her own nuptials, she gets caught up in another murder investigation. Marla is a bridesmaid at her friend Jill’s wedding when she discovers the matron of honor—the bride’s sister— dead under the cake table. She has a lot going on in her life, but when Jill pleads for her help in solving the case, Marla can’t refuse. It’s a fast-paced tale with humor, romance, and suspense as Marla races to find the killer before her wedding day arrives.

Considering the book is a mystery, how much can you tell us about the antagonist?

Since the story is a whodunit, I can’t tell you much! Many people had reason to want Torrie, the matron of honor, dead. Torrie was the bride’s sister, and Jill had a secret past that Torrie threatened to expose. How far would Jill go to maintain her sister’s silence? Then again, Torrie’s colleagues each had their own reasons to want her out of their way.

Meanwhile, Torrie’s husband inherits a piece of property that Torrie had jointly owned with her sister. How badly does he need the money from a property sale? And speaking of commercial property, Jill’s uncle and cousin were involved in a shady real estate deal with the owner of Orchid Isle, where Jill’s wedding took place. Did Torrie learn too much about his secrets? And so on. As you can see, there are a number of suspects. You’ll have to read the story to figure out which one of them is the culprit.

What motivated you to write this story?
My books all have happy endings, and so I wanted to give my series one, too. Seriously, my fans wanted to know when the next Marla Shore mystery would be coming out, but my former publisher had cancelled the series. As the markets changed, I decided to finish this book and give my readers the closure they deserved. So I really wrote it as a response to fans and in gratitude for their support. I hope they are pleased with Shear Murder. It was a delight to write, and I had fun bringing back all the secondary characters we’ve grown to know and love. I am grateful to Five Star for getting this book in front of readers. So if you’re looking for a humorous mystery centered around weddings with a whodunit puzzle to solve, check it out.

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Your First Mystery

How did you get started writing mysteries or thrillers? Assuming you were an avid reader of the genre, did you outline the plots of your favorite stories? Study structure and pacing? Attend writing workshops by seasoned authors? Or did you use a how-to book?
Keeper of the Rings, my fourth sci fi romance now available in digital format, is the story wherein I learned how to plot a murder mystery. It has all the elements for a cozy: a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other and who have a motive for the crime, a confined setting, and an amateur sleuth.
Here’s the story blurb:

Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact. Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.

KeeperoftheRings_400px

Who stole the sacred horn that must be blown to reset the annual cycles of Lothar, the god worshipped by the people of Xan? Only the members of the ruling priesthood, the Synod, had access to the holy artifact. Was it Zeroun, the ambitious Minister of Religion? Perhaps Karayan, a friend of Leena’s family and the Minister of Justice, is involved. Or maybe Sirvat is guilty. As Minister of Finance, she has something to hide. So does everyone on this twelve person council, including the Arch Nome himself.

While Leena’s brother is assigned the task of investigating the Synod members, her mission is to retrieve the artifact. Here the story becomes Indiana Jones meets Star Wars. Leena and Taurin survive one peril after another on a desperate quest that takes them around the globe and deep underground beneath the ruins of a holy temple. Do they find the horn before disaster ensues? Is the thief unmasked? Was he responsible for the accident that killed Leena’s mother?

Here’s an excerpt where Leena and Taurin discuss the suspects with her brother, Bendyk, and his assistant, Swill.

Swill tugged at the long sleeves of her burgundy blouse, tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. “Magar makes regular unexplained entries in his receipts, which Sirvat deposits into the Treasury. Magar refuses to elaborate on the source. Sirvat’s financial records are impeccable, but the odd thing about her is these trips she takes every so often, returning with a new piece of jewelry each time. The items are created with rare gemstones. Usually, she’s not one to adorn herself.”

“I’ll bet I know where she gets them.” Taurin related what he and Leena had learned about Grotus and Sirvat’s relationship.

“I don’t believe it.” Bendyk shook his head. “She seems so strait-laced.”

Leena gave a small smile. “Perhaps she hides a passionate nature. She certainly has a peculiar bent to fall for a man like Grotus.” Her face grimaced in disgust at the memory of the smuggler. “You know, some of those items I saw in Grotus’s mansion are similar to pieces in Karayan’s house.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Karayan has quite an extensive art collection.”

“Are you implying that he buys his art works from Grotus?” Bendyk asked with a horrified expression.

“Not really. They just share the same kind of artistic taste, although Karayan is a much better dresser.”

Beside her, Taurin snorted. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s preference in art or clothes. Did you investigate Zeroun? As Minister of Religion, his department is responsible for administering the Black Lands. Someone there has granted the Chocola Company illegal rights.”

“We’ll check into it,” Swill assured him. “We’ve cleared most of the other Synod members but weren’t sure about Sirvat’s trips and Magar’s secretive dealings in his trade commissions. I still feel he’s withholding information from us.”

“You’re wasting your time with Magar,” Taurin snapped. “I suggest you check out Zeroun. The Minister of Religion would also be responsible for—” He held his tongue; he’d nearly said for excising any records of the Temple of Light. “—for the Black Lands,” he finished.

*****
They could easily be discussing suspects in a murder. This was the last romance I wrote before switching to mysteries, but it taught me everything I need to know about plotting a whodunit. How did you learn the craft?