Suspicious Minds

In lieu of my usual Words of Wisdom post today I have a theory to share about mystery fiction.

Namely, that mystery fiction can also be considered suspicion fiction.

Mystery is often considered a highly intellectual genre, given that it focuses on solving the puzzle of a baffling murder. Any discussion of mystery plotting will hone in on clues, red herrings, misdirecting the reader, and laying out the pieces of the puzzle for the sleuth and reader to put together. Mystery writers are like stage magicians, practicing misdirection while setting up the reveal. The puzzle can be deep, intricate and twisty.

The goal is for the solution to be surprising, and if we readers figure it out beforehand, we do it in a way that makes us feel satisfied for having figured out the identity of the killer. The satisfaction we feel can be part of the emotional payoff at the end of a mystery.

But mystery is also about another emotion.

Suspicion.

Suspicion defined: 1. The act of suspecting, especially something wrong or evil. 2. The state of mind of someone who suspects; doubts; misgiving.

The Emotion Thesaurus defines suspicion as “intuitively suspecting that something is wrong,” and goes on to list external and internal manifestations of this emotion. Your body language, such as darting glances or furtive looks or movements, might indicate your suspicion. Or, perhaps your stomach is roiled, your heart is beating faster, your palms are sweating, or your chest feels tight.

In a mystery novel, who does the sleuth suspect? Who do the police suspect? Most of all, who does the reader suspect?

How do you behave when you are feeling suspicious?

Doubt is a key part of suspicion. The sleuth begins to wonder who they can trust, and who they can’t. The reader begins wondering about the truthfulness and trustworthiness of a character, often suspecting more than one character at the same time. Doubt in the main character, or supporting characters, can lead to distrust, secrecy, and furtive behavior.

Suspicion can easily become obsession.

The sleuth can come to suspect even friends or family, and others can do the same with the sleuth. Adding to this is the often furtive nature of characters in a mystery. Suspects often have something to hide, such as a secret, or a different crime.

Suspicion can also be focused on an event or absence of something. For instance, the curious case of the dog that didn’t bark in the night.

If you suspect someone, you don’t entirely trust them, and that mistrust can deepen your suspicion as you draw conclusions about what they’ve been up to, and what you may have learned. The obsession deepens, both for the sleuth, and the reader, as they are drawn further into a web of deception, suspecting someone, only to discover they have an alibi, while learning that another character did something unusual or mysterious.

Thus suspicion has an arc. Moreover, there is synergy going on here—someone acts or acted “suspicious” which causes the sleuth to suspect them, creating a kind of feedback loop.

  1. It begins with noticing something is off about someone’s behavior, or a set of circumstances.
  2. Doubt ensues.
  3. Then, discovering “evidence” which increases suspicion. This can be an overheard conversation, reading a note or email, seeing a meeting without hearing what is being said, looking at a pattern of behavior, perhaps behavior out of character for the suspect, etc.
  4. Discovering a lie, or a false alibi can heighten suspicion.
  5. There can be a deepening fixation on a suspect’s behavior, words, deeds, and trying to figure out what they were thinking, why they did what they did, etc.
  6. Acting on that suspicion to the point of taking risks and putting yourself in potential jeopardy. This often precedes the confrontation/reveal in the final act of a mystery.
  7. Given that mysteries usually have multiple suspects, there will be a point where the sleuth (and the reader) rule out a person because of evidence, alibi, or learning what the secret was that made a particular individual act suspicious to the main character.
  8. Of course, heroes and readers often suspect more than one character at the same time, so the arcs can overlap. Sometimes the behavior or evidence is one thing, which leads to doubt about a particular person. Doubt which might deepen to suspicion, or might simmer in the background. Or, even forgotten for the moment, until the end, when new evidence makes the sleuth suddenly suspect that person with a cold-in-the-bones feeling.
  9. Finally, the sleuth’s suspicions lead to the actual killer and/or can lead the killer to them.

Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, A Shadow of a Doubt, does this superbly. It’s really a suspense movie with strong mystery elements, but it shows the progression in our heroine Charlie’s suspicions, and her behavior as her suspicion deepens about a beloved uncle. Our own James Scott Bell recommended this movie to me, and not only is it gripping entertainment (and fun, with a pair of supporting characters who love murder mysteries) it’s also a perfect example of a suspicion arc.

I’d love to see Jim do a JSB Goes to the Movies featuring it, so have refrained from saying too much here. Thanks, Jim for recommending the movie. It delivered on every level.

Suspicion goes hand in hand with another emotion, suspense, especially suspense for the reader. As our suspicion of someone or something deepens, we feel increasing suspense over what could happen, especially since we usually lack proof / evidence of guilt until the end. We feel suspense and tension over wondering if we’re right, and also if we overlooked something, which heightens our involvement in the story.

What does this mean for writing mysteries?

It means being aware of the reader’s own building suspicion and keeping that in mind as your hero investigates the mystery at the heart of your novel.

I’m outliner, both before, during and after drafting, so in my case, I include the suspicion arc in my outline(s). For a discovery writer, I think being aware of how suspicion can build and play out is still important, and something you can internalize by thinking about this aspect of a mystery before writing your story. It can also be added in revision, just like clues and red herrings.

I find possessing a kind of multi-level awareness about your characters and how they are perceiving what is going on is important in writing fiction in general of course, but also with this issue of who suspects what when. Especially for the sleuth, the police, and the murderer.

As JSB discussed in this 2015 post there is a shadow story taking place off screen from your hero with the other characters.

Suspicion is a part of that shadow story. Being aware of who the killer suspects is investigating the murder can set up the confrontation with the hero. This confrontation is a crucial part of many modern mysteries.

Also, how will others react when they realize the hero suspects them? Do they become more forthcoming? Or do they clam up? Even become angry?

In a mystery featuring an amateur sleuth or a P.I. if the police begin to suspect that the hero is investigating, they’ll likely have words with the investigator, so knowing when they might suspect that and how much is important.

There you have it, my possibly crackpot theory on mysteries also being suspicion fiction.

I’ll give the King the last word on suspicious minds

What do you think of this “mystery is also suspicion fiction” theory of mine? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Investigating Agatha Christie

I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest. –Agatha Christie

* * *

Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her sales are exceeded only by the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.  According to her website at agathachristie.com, “She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap. “

Agatha Christie’s books have sold over two billion copies worldwide!

Given Ms. Christie’s extraordinary success, it might be a good idea to see if we can discover some of her secrets.

* * *

A few years ago, I watched a documentary entitled “The Agatha Christie Code” (available on Youtube)  in which researchers examined various aspects of Christie’s writing. These researchers included

Dr. Richard Forsyth, Research Fellow in Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick

Dr. Pernilla Danielsson, Academic Champion of Communications at the University of Birmingham

Dr. Marcus Dahl, Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study – London University

They used computer technology to analyze Christie’s work, and they found interesting patterns in her stories that may give us a clue as to why she’s so popular.

Word Choices

Christie used simple language in her books, so readers were free to focus on the plot rather than the language. For example, the researchers found she used “said” often in an attribution rather than other words like “responded” or “answered.”

Christie also often repeated words within a short section of prose – something I’ve been warned against. Here’s an example from the novel Sad Cypress that was used in the video. (My notations in red.)

The researchers thought the repetition cemented the information in the reader’s mind. My editor would probably faint if I sent something like that to her, but maybe we should rethink the multiple uses of a word in a short section of prose.

Verbal Structure

The most interesting part of the video for me was when one of the researchers evaluated Christie’s works on the three criteria of

  •             Word length
  •             Word frequency
  •             Sentence structure

Dr. Danielsson plotted information about these aspects on a three-dimensional graph and plotted the same criteria from Arthur Conan Doyle’s works on the same graph. Christie’s books exhibited a consistency shown visually by her plotted points being clustered together while the points of Doyle’s stories were spread farther apart indicating his works were more dissimilar when compared to each other. This indicated that Doyle’s style had changed through the years while Christie’s had remained remarkably consistent.

Plot

Christie’s mysteries almost always create a world where

  •             There is a dead body
  •             A closed group of suspects are introduced
  •             A detective (either professional or amateur) is a character
  •             Red herrings are spread throughout
  •             There is a denouement scene where the detective identifies the murderer and brings closure to the story.

Some critics claim Christie wrote the same story over and over, but that’s not fair. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None introduced novel twists to the standard murder mystery although they used a typical Christie template.

However, this general structure reassures the reader that there will be a logical puzzle that will be solved in the end, and that contributes to the sense of satisfaction.

Characters

While some famous characters appear in multiple books and are popular with the reading public (e.g., Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Captain Hastings), the number of characters in each novel may be just as important. This prompted an interesting theory by David Shephard, Master trainer in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Mr. Shephard pointed out that people have a limited focus and a conscious mind can only concentrate on five to nine things at a time. When presented with more information than that, a person will enter a sort of hypnotic trance.

Since Christie’s stories often have more than nine characters and several plot lines, Shephard thinks the reader’s mind can’t handle the overload of information, so he/she begins to “feel” the book rather than just think about it. This emotional connection makes readers want to return to Agatha Christie’s books again and again.

I’m not sure I can buy that explanation, but it’s very interesting and makes me think I should count the characters in my future books to see if I can put my readers into a trance.

Content & Style

As we all know, Agatha Christie’s mysteries contain no explicit sexual scenes and no explicit violence. So why do so many readers still buy her novels? Readers of Christie’s books know there will be a logical solution to the murder, the killer will be caught, and the clues are all available to solve the mystery.

David Suchet, who played the part of Hercule Poirot in the television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, compared Christie’s books to sudoku puzzles. He believes readers enjoy the books because they’re completely absorbed in figuring out the solution to the puzzle.

Length

Although I found a site with the number of pages in each of Agatha Christie’s novels, I only found a reference to the word count on https://thewritepractice.com/word-count/. That site had an article that states Agatha Christie’s mystery novels average between 40,000 and 60,000 words. That’s a little short for most novels today, but it could explain why people found them easy to read.

 

Pacing

Agatha Christie controlled the speed at which her books were read by laying out more descriptive passages at the beginning, but picking up the pace of the story as it progressed. Hypnotist Paul McKenna had an interesting take on this. He felt her particular pattern of writing caused certain brain chemicals to be released, resulting in a sort of addiction in the readers. This theory goes a little beyond my pay grade, but I do think picking up the pace is a technique that works well in mystery writing.

* * *

So there you have it. While I’m sure there are other reasons for her success, these aspects of Agatha Christie’s writing are worth considering.

* * *

So TKZers: Have you read many of Agatha Christie’s books? Why do you think they’re so popular? Have you viewed “The Agatha Christie Code” video?  Is there anything you think we can glean from the data in this post that will help with our own writing?

* * *

 

“Very few of us are what we seem.” –Agatha Christie

Private pilot Cassie Deakin lands in the middle of a mystery and discovers things are not always what they seem.

Buy on AmazonBarnes & NobleKoboGoogle 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

* * *

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.

 

 

Are You More Mystery or Suspense?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Early in my writing education, I read something about mystery and suspense that helped a great deal. The author said that a mystery was like a maze. The sleuth follows clues and red herrings, eventually getting to the answer.

But suspense is like a coil that gets tighter and tighter until the final SNAP.

You can have elements of both, of course, though which one predominates will determine your category.

Suspense is where I hang my keyboard, but almost always with a mystery attached. That’s why my favorite movie director is Alfred Hitchcock. Dubbed “The Master of Suspense,” Hitch wove tales that had you, as they used to say, on the edge of your seat.

I wish everyone could have the same experience I did when I saw Psycho for the first time.

It was in high school, and I’d never seen it, nor had I been informed about the plot. A friend of mine arranged for a showing in our high school auditorium one night before Halloween.

The place was packed.

The movie started, and there was Janet Leigh absconding with bank funds, and pulling in to rest at the Bates Motel.

Oh, man.

The suspense got tighter and tighter. The audience screams got louder, and loudest (me included) at the big reveal.

I shan’t tell you what that is, lest there be those unfamiliar with the film. (If this is you, you are lucky! Arrange to stream it when the sun is down and you won’t be interrupted!)

Books can be like that, too. The two scariest books I ever read are The Shining by Stephen King, and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. The latter is nonfiction about the Manson Family, which lived in the hills about eight miles from my home. They made a miniseries about it which my roommates and I watched in college.

I had nightmares.

One morning I woke up to a scritch-scratch sound. I turned over and saw the guy I shared a room with, Doug, sitting on the edge of his bed, looking at me and sharpening a knife.

He got a big laugh out of that. Me, not so much.

By the way, if you want to know what that whole Manson vibe felt like, Quentin Tarantino captured it perfectly in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There’s a scene where Brad Pitt goes to the Spahn Ranch, where the family was holed up. It’s a fantastic scene and absolutely right on in the creep factor.

Tarantino made another alternative history about pure evil, Inglourious Basterds (spelling is correct). I’ve never seen a more suspenseful scene than this opening, where the Nazi played by Christoph Waltz interrogates a farmer who is hiding Jews under his house. Talk about a spiral that gets tighter and tighter. Yeesh!

I bring this up because I’m about to re-release the most suspenseful novel I’ve ever written. I had that coil firmly in mind as I wrote it, and kept making it tighter and tighter until…well, I best not reveal anything further. Except, if you’ll allow a bit of shameless self-promotion, this clip from a review:

“You’ve got mail” equals “You’ve got trouble” in this impossible-to-put-down thriller. Bell’s straight-from-the-headlines tale will raise the hair on your neck for one important reason: it could happen to any of us. Empowered by his firsthand knowledge of the legal system, the Christy Award-winning former trial lawyer paints a picture of just how vulnerable our secrets—and families—are, in the age of Internet stalkers. First-rate suspense with a fiery action-movie climax! – Christine Lord, CBD Reviews

The title is Can’t Stop Me (formerly published as No Legal Grounds). As per usual, the Kindle version is up for the special pre-release price of $2.99 (regular will be $5.99). Go here to order.

Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0C6WGFBM1

Why do I lean into suspense? Maybe because I feel like the world is a tightening coil, where evil exists and does not sleep. We can either give in to it, or we can fight it; we just can’t ignore it. My fiction tries to work all this out. Isn’t that quest the basis of most dramatic action? From Homer and Aeschylus to John Grisham and Lee Child, the guiding light is justice.

What about you? Are you more mystery or suspense? Or something else? What does this tell you about you as a writer? I’ll be on the road this morning, but will catch up later. Have at it.

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

How to Write a Mystery in Any Genre

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s an old joke about a guy walking into a bar with a squirrel in a cage. The bartender says, “What’s that squirrel doing here?” And the guy says, “Thinking about his next mystery.” The bartender asks what he means, and the guy says, “My squirrel is a mystery writer.”

“Come on!” the bartender says. “How can a squirrel write mysteries?”

“Easy,” the guy says. “He comes up with the ending, then works his way back.”

That squirrel was onto one way to write a mystery: Know the ending, the who of the whodunit, before you start writing. Some of the most successful mystery writers of all time—e.g., Dame Agatha, Erle Stanley Gardner—did it this way.

Their formula was simple. You have a dead body and several possible suspects, each with a motive and an alibi. The killer, when revealed, is a surprise.

That’s always the fun of a Perry Mason. In the classic TV show, the redoubtable Raymond Burr would be grilling a witness on cross-examination so incisively that someone out in the gallery would be forced to stand up and say, “Yes! I killed her! But she was going to force me to give up everything I worked for!”

This trope was hilariously sent up in Woody Allen’s Bananas:

But this is not the only way to do it. Other writers “pants” their way forward, not knowing until the end who the killer is going to be. They extol this method by saying, “If I can’t guess the killer until the end, then readers surely won’t be able to!”

That’s a pretty good argument, though it may entail substantial rewriting and rewiring the plot.

A rejoinder of the plotters is this: If I work out the motive and method first, I can design a whole web of red herrings to throw readers off the scent.

James N. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, is of the latter type. He advises picking a killer, then writing a lengthy biography to explore and justify the murder.

Personally, I don’t like to do lengthy character bios. I find it closes me in before I really get into the story. I like a little living and breathing space for my cast.

I do, however, want to know a few key things about my main characters:

  • Looks
  • Dominant Impression (a Dwight Swain advisory, which means a noun of vocation and an adjective of manner)
  • Timeline of Key Events. I identify the year of birth and go forward to other important years: first day of school, first job, first love. I always like to ask what happened to this character at the age of 16, which seems a pivotal year in everyone’s life.

Another thing the timeline gives me is a basis for cultural markers. I like to know what music, movies, and TV shows were popular in a given year. A few will pop out that seem right for the character.

When it comes to the villain, I have to come up with the most important thing: the motive. I want to have a “hidden” motive that is revealed near the end.

That’s when I write “the speech.”

We’ve seen this in many classic mysteries. The sleuth gathers all the suspects together in a room and starts explaining the clues. Hammett does this in The Thin Man, and Gardner in his courtroom scenes.

It can also be done one-on-one, as in The Maltese Falcon.

In the speech, my hero explains the whole setup, the red herrings, the clues that lead him to identify the killer. (Note: this speech is not intended for the final product, though I may use some of it. It’s a brainstorming exercise above all else.) I work on the speech over several days, sleep on it, add layers to it. This enables me to set up the “game” from the start, to know the hidden moves made by the villain “off-stage.”

Now, I’m not a pure mystery writer. I walk down the thriller street. But I believe all good fiction has a mystery to it, a question in the readers’ minds: What is going on here? Why are these things happening to the character? Why is the character acting this way? This is essential for any genre, from romance to thrillers to literary.

Because the great driver of fiction is a reader turning the pages to find out what happens next, and why. Otherwise, the story becomes predictable. And predictability is boring.

What about you? Do you agree that a mystery element, as defined above, is essential to good fiction? And when it comes to mysteries and character secrets, are you like that squirrel who knows the ending up front? Or do you like to pants-and-wait?

Romantic Suspense – An Overview

Romantic SuspenseIn a comment on a previous post, one TKZ reader asked about romantic suspense. Since I write in that genre as well as mystery, I’ll try to respond.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Romantic Suspense books have both romance and suspense. However, that’s a very broad definition, and in order to write in the genre, one needs to dig a little deeper.

Is it a romance novel with a suspense sub plot?
Or is it a suspense novel with a romance sub plot?

How are they divided? 50-50? 60-40 romance because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or 60-40 suspense because it’s Romantic Suspense? Or something else?

In truth, it’s none of the above, so let’s back up and look at the definitions.

According to the Romance Writers of America (presented long before the recent implosion and I think their definitions/guidelines still hold), a Romance is defined as a novel containing a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

One of those subgenres is romantic suspense. What does RWA say about that?

Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

You’ll notice the definition does not single out suspense. Instead, it adds mystery and thriller. And my own personal bugaboo is that RWA chose to call the entire subgenre “Romantic Suspense” when the mystery genre is also in there. A mystery is not a suspense, and vice versa.

Let’s look at those genres that fall under the mystery umbrella. Author and former agent Nathan Bradford sums them up thusly:

Mysteries have mysteries, i.e., something you don’t know until the end.
Suspense has danger, but not necessarily action.
Thrillers have action.

A bit simplistic, but it’s a start. An easy way to think of it is in a mystery, the reader follows the protagonist and doesn’t learn anything until he or she does. Think Sherlock Holmes.

In a suspense, the reader is one step ahead of the protagonist and knows facts before he or she does. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

Can your book have both? Yes. In my Finding Sarah, the story begins with a mystery, and both characters are working together. But when Sarah disappears, readers will see what’s happening from her POV, and they’ll know more than Randy. Likewise, as Randy discovers clues, the reader will know them but Sarah won’t. Moving your characters apart can increase the suspense aspect of the book.

What about thrillers? The older definition of a thriller was “a suspense novel with consequences of global proportions”, but the lines between suspense and thriller have blurred. A thriller has more action, should have higher stakes, but often the stakes and/or consequences are only for the characters and don’t reach far beyond the setting of the book.

(Side Note) At a conference, I asked Lee Child whether he thought thrillers had been “watered down” as a way for publishers to attract a wider audience, because I’ve seen reviews for some of my Blackthorne, Inc. books that refer to them as thrillers, which was not my intention when writing them. He gave me a serious look (from way up high, because he’s tall and I’m not.) He said, “Do you want to know the difference between thriller and suspense?”

Duh. Of course I did. This was Lee Child, after all. He said, “It’s an extra zero on your advance.”

So, for the purposes of this post, I’m lumping thrillers and suspense in the same box. Now, back to my initial question, taking the RWA definition of romantic suspense into consideration.

Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.

Note the word integral. The two elements are entwined so you cannot remove any of the mystery/suspense elements without the book collapsing. Likewise for the romance. If you can remove either of those elements, you don’t have a romantic suspense.

When you’re writing you should be writing 100% romance and 100% mystery/suspense.

Sound hard? You’re right. It is.

 



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.

 

Key Tips for Creating a Genderless Character for Villain Options

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane




In my critique of Cruel Sacrifices, an anonymous submission, I brought up the topic of creating scenes with a genderless character and TKZ follower Paul Duffau asked for a post on the subject. You asked, Paul. Here it is. 

The technique of writing a genderless character can be effective to allow an author more options for suspects so the reader can’t easily determine the gender of a villain. One of my favorite ways to create a mystery/suspense “whodunnit” is to build a case against a slew of suspects. By the end of the book, I can flip a coin and make the final decision on who is guilty. By making a killer neutral and without gender, that expands my choices. More fun for me.

I’ve seen many books written with scenes where a villain is described as “the man” or “the killer.” As an author, that pulls me from the story, because I see the craft behind the use of the generic term. It’s obvious the author is trying to build suspense by letting the reader see a glimpse of the diabolical bad guy without fully disclosing who it is. I’m sure I’ve done this too, but in my last two thriller novels (Blood Score and The Last Victim), I challenged myself by creating a genderless character to broaden my suspect list and make it harder for readers to figure out who the guilty are. 

Scenes with my genderless character were difficult to write. It’s easy to slip and add a pronoun of he or she, so edits must be thorough. And it’s hard to come up with different ways to describe this person. It’s also a challenge where to place these scenes throughout a book to add tension and mystery, but try it. It adds complexity to your writing and can make for a better “whodunnit.”

1.) Omniscient POV – In select spots during the scene, I write in omniscient Point of View (POV). I try not to carry this on for too long. I want the reader to clearly know this is my bad guy and I add a generic descriptor later to ground the reader into the head of my character, but the shock value of seeing the bodies through the eyes of the killer (the artistic elements to the brutal crime) seemed to create a more macabre effect and give insight into my serial killer.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Moonlight cast its slate glow onto a lifted hand, fingers gracefully posed toward the dark heavens. They would point to the worthy pinnacle of the masterpiece. The bare skin of a sculpted leg made a beautiful silhouette against the full moon, toes perfectly poised to catch the glimmer of the night. Frozen flesh glittered under the stars in the right light. The crystalline webbing of ice turned blanched skin into an intricate texture with a shine that reflected the dark sacred night.

Too bad the meat had to thaw. To rot.

2.) Generic Character Description – Without gender, I used a description of “the driver” to describe my bad guy. This type of generic description can be used for anyone, men or women.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

Cutting a scream loose, the warmth of a blood shower, the thrill of seeing the soul leave the body and knowing God’s hand played no part in it—those were rare and powerful addictions—but none of those things matched the final moment when hope left their eyes and they accepted their fate. Sated and drunk on memories, the driver tossed sturdy work gloves aside and climbed into a truck when it was time to go, started the engine, and turned on the music.

The voice of Ray Charles sang. ‘What a Wonderful World’ brought a fitting end as the truck jostled along the gravel service road toward the busted gate few people knew about—heading through the trees into the dark sacred night.


3.) Deep POV – Focus on the action and see it through the eyes of the character. My killer is suffering from withdrawals and the need to kill is escalating. So rather than focusing on HIM or HER, I distract the reader by concentrating on the action or what he or she is obsessed with. In deep POV (in our heads), we wouldn’t define ourselves because we already know who we are. We would simply let random thoughts race through our minds, driven by what we see or think. Deep POV, coupled with omniscient view, can give the illusion to the reader that they are in the head of a killer, yet not give away the gender of a bad guy.

Excerpt: The Last Victim (Jordan Dane)

One final glance in the rear view mirror made it hard to leave, but the stunning silhouette of the Totem against the moon stirred the question that remained. Who would top the next creation? There would definitely be a next time and it had to be someone worthy. It wasn’t enough to kill perfection once.

Hitting stride, the Totem Killer had only gotten started and had cross-hairs on the next one. A name. Another perfect one. Everything had been planned with each detail thought out. Nothing would be rushed.

The driver had a pick up to make and wouldn’t go home empty handed.

4.) Unreliable Narrators – Detectives or sleuths can assume a gender based on a criminal profile or perhaps the strength it would take to perpetrate a crime or the statistically expected Modus Operandi (MO) for one gender over another. FBI profiles can project a male killer simply by MO if the crime is heinous enough NOT to indicate a female assailant, for example. So your main heroic character can be the unreliable narrator, or witnesses can lie or tell their version of the truth as they see it. A big reveal can come later to turn things around, but that’s what is so fun about peeling back the layers of an investigation.

5.) Red Herrings – A mystery craft technique, called a red herring, is used to create a clue that leads down a false path in the investigation. This can contribute to the illusion that the killer is one gender, when it can easily be discovered later that the clue was misinterpreted or someone lied to mislead the police. If you couple this method with your generic character POV, it can keep the reader guessing. And news flash: killers lie to throw cops off their scent or they plant evidence or pretend to be a victim to mislead investigators. That makes the chase more fun. A good killer is a chameleon who could conceivably get away with murder. The more diabolically clever the killer, the more brilliant your sleuth would have to be. Make your hero earn his status by giving him or her a worthy adversary.

6.) Scene Timing – If a scene is written through the eyes of the dastardly genderless villain (at a distance, for example), followed by a subsequent scene where the character walks unassumingly on the page with a name, that could influence the reader into thinking “it can’t be him/her. He/she can’t be in two places at once.” If the scene is written well enough, it can appear there is distance and the reader assumes there are two people, when the character could be one and the same.

I used all of these methods to build upon the mystery of my killer’s identity and push off “the reveal” as late as possible in the book. Leave twists in the plot, even toward the end, and make your readers sweat it out.

Has anyone else used a technique not mentioned here, to create a genderless/faceless villain? Or what books have you read where an author kept you guessing on gender? Please share.

Wishing you happy holidays, TKZers! Hope 2015 is special for all of you.