Reader Question re Crime Scenes

Nancy J. Cohen

I will be on the road today en route to Bouchercon, so I won’t be able to respond. Here is a question for you to discuss amongst yourselves.

Do you prefer to read about clever crimes, ingenious crimes, heinous crimes, or funny crimes? Do you like these scenes to be offstage or on site?

dead woman

See examples of each below.

Clever crime: Stabbing victim with icicle that later melts, dissolving the murder weapon. Or using the victim’s own medications against him.

Ingenious crime: Getting a person who has a bee allergy in contact with an aggressive bee. Maybe multiple people get stung, disguising the true victim. This one takes more thought and planning than a mere clever crime.

Heinous crime: Abducting and murdering people then cutting up their body parts or dissolving them in acid.

Funny crime: Beating the victim with a frozen turkey and then cooking it up for the cops.

Which type do you prefer in the mysteries you read or write?

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Evolution of a Bad Guy

Maggie Toussaint

When I began plotting my second paranormal mystery, Bubba Done It, I knew one thing for sure. All the suspects had the nickname of Bubba. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue.

Bubba Done It

Before I could cast men in the suspect roles, I considered my setting and the types of characters I needed. I’m familiar with the setting as I use a fictional locale that’s similar to where I live in coastal Georgia. We have townies and imports. We have people with plenty and people with nothing. We have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, even Native Americans. We have a stalled economy and our share of foreclosures.

All of the top suspects needed a motive to kill the banker. Some motives I considered were previous criminal record, financial trouble, and love.

The sheriff immediately adds four Bubbas to his suspect list. Since seafood is the main industry around here, it would be good to have a fisherman Bubba. I also wanted someone who’d moved to the county as a retiree, someone who didn’t quite get locals or their customs. That worked. Two Bubbas down, two to go.

Drugs are a universal problem in today’s world. I decided upon a Bubba with a bad track record as a crackhead, but who had allegedly reformed into an evangelist.

Lastly, I wanted to ensure my sleuth Baxley Powell had a definite call to action. She’d taken the heat in Book 1 as the top suspect, so for Book 2, I found a patsy in her brother-in-law. Why would he want to kill the banker? Baxley knew her Bubba was a dreamer who often needed money for get-rich-quick ventures. Baxley and her husband had bailed Bubba Powell out of financial scrapes for years.

With her husband dead, the task of saving Bubba fell to Baxley. She’s certain he couldn’t have done it.

Or at least she feels that way at first. With each layer of story revealed, she discovers more reasons for the Bubbas to have killed the banker. Her challenge is to sort through the evidence, in this world and the next, to finger the killer.

To summarize:
Populate your suspect list with characters fitting to your setting and situation.
Give the suspects motives to kill your victim.
Layer the suspects’ relationship with the victim to create complex characters.
Make sure the sleuth has a clear call to action.

Buy links for Bubba Done It:
Kindle
Amazon hardcover
B&N hardcover

Connect with Maggie on the web:
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Goodreads | LinkedIn | Pinterest | Booklover’s Bench |
Amazon Author Central

MaggieToussaint_LargeSouthern author Maggie Toussaint is published in mystery, romantic suspense, and science fiction (writing as Rigel Carson). The third book in her Cleopatra Jones mystery series recently won the Silver Falchion Award, while her romances have won the National Readers’ Choice Award and the EPIC eBook Award for Romantic Suspense. Her latest mystery is a book two of her paranormal cozy series about a psychic sleuth, Bubba Done It.

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Crime Writing Resources

Nancy J. Cohen

While researching my mysteries, I often need information that you can’t go around asking writer friends in public. Imagine discussing these topics in a restaurant. What kind of poison can I use that will kill someone right away and is easily obtainable? How can I stage a crime scene by hanging the victim to make it look like a suicide? Does firing a .38 give much of a recoil? What happens when a detective is personally involved in a murder case? What kind of poisonous snake can I have the bad guy put in my hero’s suitcase? Often, I’ll need specific advice to help me set the scene with as much authenticity as possible.

Fortunately, mystery writers have a range of resources available besides your friendly cop on the local force. These are some of the sites where you can get useful information and answers to your research questions. Also listed are well-known mystery conferences. Check out the links. They’ll lead you to informative websites and blogs.

Bright Blue Line: http://scottsilverii.com/
Bouchercon: http://www.bouchercon.info
Crime Scene Writer: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/crimescenewriter/
Florida Chapter of MWA: http://www.mwaflorida.org/
Florida Sisters in Crime: http://floridasistersincrime.com/
Independent Mystery Booksellers Association: http://www.mysterybooksellers.com
In Reference to Murder: http://www.inreferencetomurder.com/
International Thriller Writers: http://thrillerwriters.org/
Killer Nashville: http://www.killernashville.com/
Kiss of Death: http://www.rwamysterysuspense.org
Left Coast Crime: http://www.leftcoastcrime.org
Malice Domestic: http://www.malicedomestic.org
Murder Must Advertise: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/MurderMustAdvertise/
Mystery Writers of America: http://www.mysterywriters.org
Sisters in Crime: http://www.sistersincrime.org
SleuthFest: http://www.mwaflorida.org/sleuthfest.htm
The Graveyard Shift: http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/
Thrillerfest: http://www.thrillerfest.com/
The Writer’s Forensic Blog: http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/
Write Crime Right: http://writecrimeright.blogspot.com/
Writers Police Academy: http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com/

Note that most of these are listed in my writing guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery.

Writing the Cozy Mystery

What sites do you find helpful in your crime-related research?

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Writing a Mystery is no ‘Joke’

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today I can’t help but weigh in on the latest kerfuffle caused by Isabel Allende’s assertion in an interview with NPR that she wrote her latest mystery novel, Ripper, as a ‘joke’. 

She said that she wasn’t a fan of mysteries but decided to “take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but is a joke”… I had to digest that statement for a while before I let the full impact of it sink in (and to read the full interview you can visit:  http://www.npr.org/2014/01/25/265246811/author-interview-isabel-allende so you can see I’m not misquoting or taking her out of context). Then I sat back and fumed because writing should never be a ‘joke’.

Sure, writers can be ironic and tongue in cheek (which is also what Allende maintains she was doing) but they should never disrespect a genre they don’t read or like, by making it sound as though you can fool readers by simply following the ‘formula’ and get away with it. You can’t. Readers see through that. Readers want writing that is authentic.

Once, when I was young and naive I thought I could write a romance novel. I didn’t read them. I didn’t like them. But I actually thought ‘what the hell’ and so I went to a class on how to write a romance…until I realized (after two classes and one failed attempt at writing the first 3 chapters) that I couldn’t. Not in the strict genre sense of a Mills & Boon or Harlequin novel. Why? Because I couldn’t write them authentically. I didn’t love those types of novels and if I attempted one it would probably be with a less than pure heart (I would have been tongue in cheek perhaps or ironic, but not genuine). To the instructor’s credit, he made one thing very clear right from the start: If you thought you could just make money out of writing a romance then you’d come to the wrong place. If you didn’t love reading romances, you would fail. Why? Because you wouldn’t be true to the genre or to the authenticity required for the true writing process.

Back to Isabel Allende – who, I might add, is an author whose work I used to admire.  I loved her magic realism novels, The House of The Spirits, and Of Love and Shadows. But now I’m not sure what to make of her as an author, because I don’t understand what she thought she was doing writing a book in a genre she didn’t like as some kind of ‘joke’ (I’m also totally bemused as to why she would tell someone that was what she was doing in an interview!).

My take away from all of this is that you have to be authentic in all that you write. Your heart has to be in the right place. If you intend to be humorous, ironic or satirical that’s fine – just don’t pretend otherwise, and but don’t use that to disrespect genuine readers and lovers or a particular genre. To do so makes me cringe. 

So, Isabel Allende, you have now lost both my respect for you as a writer, and my love for your books as a reader.  Tell me TKZers, what was your reaction?



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Keeping a Dirt File

By Nancy J. Cohen

For mystery writers, having a dirt file is akin to keeping a gold mine in your house. What is it? I’m referring to a folder full of clippings you’ve taken from the newspaper or magazines that may be relevant to your work someday. I get out a pair of scissors whenever I read a paper copy of the Sunday newspaper. A recent issue’s headline caught my eye: Bomb Case Awash in Mystery.
newspaper
As soon as I saw mention of a pipe bomb found under an SUV in a suburban neighborhood, I knew I’d hit gold. Suspect A noticed something strange under his car. It turned out to be a homemade bomb. He accused his wife’s lover of planting the device. This man, suspect B, said that he was framed by Suspect A and the wife. But it didn’t help his claim of innocence when the wife was found to have a $500,000 life insurance policy on her husband. Then the lover’s DNA was found on the bomb. But was it rigged to go off, or was it set as a false trail? To complicate the issue, police discovered videos of Suspect B and his stepdaughter having sex. Oh, man. I couldn’t have made this up! You know how truth is stranger than fiction? Here’s a perfect example.

When might I use this information? When I’m determining the suspects in my next mystery. I’m always looking for motives and secrets people may hide. Or an article like this might kick off a new plot. Think about the puzzles here. It seems an open-and-shut case about the wife and her lover trying to do away with the husband. But what if it’s really the husband and wife trying to frame the lover? Why would they do that? What if…? And here we go. Our imagination is off and running.

Stockpiling clippings doesn’t only apply to the mystery genre. For my science fiction romances, I obtain articles on futuristic technology, whether it’s on flying cars or electromagnetic weapons. Even the power of invisibility has a basis in reality. I have articles to show for these topics. I also cut out stories of true adventure travel. You never know when my hero might have to explore a volcanic crater or traipse through a jungle. Even off the beat pieces that tickle my fancy go into a general research file. You might need inspiration and one of these printouts could fire your imagination.
  
So are you a crazy clipper like me? I make sure my husband reads the newspaper first before I put holes in it. What kind of dirt do you look for?

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Morality in Mysteries

I’m speaking on several panels at two upcoming conferences. One of the topics concerns morality in mysteries, and how fractured relationships might lead to the crime when the criminal gives in to his baser instincts. Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought about much up until now. I write my tales  to entertain. Might there be a morality lesson in there somewhere?

Certainly, the Bad Hair Day series as a whole has a moral or a theme, if you will. I see the two as one and the same. So here’s one moral you can take away from my books: You can move on from past mistakes. Redemption is the theme here. When the series starts, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—is still atoning for a tragedy that happened when she was nineteen. A toddler in her care when she was babysitting drowned in the backyard pool. Guilt drives her. It motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. But when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t ever want children. She has to forgive herself before the future can blossom for her.

So here’s another lesson she learns: You can still be a good person even if you’ve done wrong. The accident that happened in the past wasn’t really her fault, but she blames herself. Deep down, she knows she is a good person. She strives to be better and solving mysteries is one way she does this. She also volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some past baggage to let go before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and Brianna for a family. Wait! Another moral is coming: Finding love can strengthen you, not cause dependency.

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow. So here we go again: No matter how glum today looks, tomorrow is a better day.
I guess you could say that the morals in my stories involve my sleuth and her character growth. The focus isn’t on the criminal and how he evolved, or what effect the crime has on the victim’s family or on society in general. My cozy whodunits are centered around the sleuth and her life, not on the crime. That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guy. Along the way, we live vicariously in her world and see how her relationships grow and change.

How about you? Do you consciously determine the theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal’s motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth’s life in general?

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Show Me The Body

This question came up on one of my writer loops: how long do you wait for the body to appear in a mystery? Assume we’re talking about a traditional whodunit. Does it make a difference to you as a reader when the murder occurs? How about when plotting your own books?

Based on my experience, if you’re a new author, it’s best to get the body up front and center. Once you’re established, you have a bit more leeway with the characters. But even if your setting is quaint and the story is more of a crime novel than a whodunit, action engages the reader.

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I’ve had several rejections over the years to mystery proposals wherein the criticism essentially said to move up the dead body. In my latest project, the initial first chapter had the heroine enter the scene, play mah jong with her friends, go to lunch, and then the person dies. I’ve changed it so that she meets her friends for lunch first, and in the midst of their meal, the murder occurs. Later, they gather to talk about it and automatically play out the motions of their mah jong game. As this is the first book in a proposed new series, I have to get the action moving as quickly as possible.
I should have seen this when writing the first draft, but often we need some distance from our work before we can see it clearly. Or we need someone else to point out what is blind to us in our closeness to the material. Also keep in mind that readers can download the beginning of your book nowadays and so you want it to be an attention grabber.

Yes, there are books I read where the characters and setting are so appealing that I just read on for pleasure, and it may be 100 pages or so before someone is killed. But I do find myself saying, “All right, where’s the dead body already? This is supposed to be a mystery.” So genre conventions come into play as well.
What’s your take on the subject: murder them now, or introduce your characters gradually and slide into the crime after the story is in motion?
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to The Kill Zone Blog! I am proud to be part of this illustrious group!

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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?

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