Friday, January 29, 2010
Why I Write (Mostly) Cozy Mysteries
Nancy Means Wright
Shortly after I was divorced and had begun to teach in a small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, I read a newspaper account about a pair of elderly Vermont farmers who kept their money in barn rafters and under mattresses. They were assaulted one night and the cash stolen—but the thieves were caught when they tossed the money about in bars and restaurants—and it reeked of barn! Up to that point, I’d published stories, poems, novels, and nonfiction books, but I hadn’t even read a mystery since fourth grade when, inspired by Nancy Drew, I penned a novella about the kidnapping of a pesky older brother—and my mother threw it out.
But I felt like a pariah so far away from my Vermont family, and desperately needed to put some kind of order back into my life. And mysteries, I knew from Nancy Drew, begin in chaos, but invariably end up in order—something I craved in my disjointed life. Moreover, in a mystery, one can do in the bad guys, including one’s former husband, and end on a bright note. I knew then that I had to write one. I’d begin with that assault, but change those elderly brothers to a French Canadian farmer and wife, and set the story on a small town dairy farm. After all, I’d lived most of my life in Cornwall, a town composed largely of farms and orchards, where Jamaican pickers came each fall to sing like dark birds in the ripe trees.
To me Vermont had always seemed an Eden, a place for healing and quiet meditation. But now I was beginning to discover the snake in the garden. Small independent farmers were being forced to sell their farms; I’d write in defense of those farmers. And I’d make the town of “Branbury” a character in the novel; I wanted a strong sense of place that was more than local color. But setting demands a sleuth. And knowing little about homicide detectives or PIs, I decided to make my sleuth an amateur, a good Samaritan farmer-neighbor to those assaulted men. Since I was going through a divorce, my fictional Ruth Willmarth would be a single mother of three. She would be like the novel’s author, the two of us trying to find out whodunnit and why—especially why—all those fractured relationships that can cause a murder. Ultimately, St. Martin’s Press published five Ruth Willmarth novels and a novella—until Ruth’s thirty cows were quarantined for mad cow disease, and the series came, like my first marriage, to an inevitable end.
But I had to keep writing. Writing is a compulsion—it keeps me out of the psychiatrist’s office. It’s my meditation, almost my raison d’être. I published two mysteries for middle grade kids—one an Agatha winner; and then a memoir about family, with real life people in it. I’ve always loved writing about real people, present or past—especially those with whom I share feelings and principles. One of them is Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and led a wholly unconventional, rebellious life. I’d already published a small press book of poems in her persona, and now I wanted to write her into a mystery. She makes an ideal sleuth, I think, with her inquiring mind, her charismatic personality, and her daring. I would start with her year as impecunious governess to three unruly girls in Mitchelstown Castle in Ireland where, in my fictional telling, she saves a young rebel from hanging and tracks down the assassin of a roué aristocrat. A 2011 sequel will find her in colourful London, and then in bloody Paris during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, where in real life she lost her own head to a dashing but feckless adventurer.
I’ve loved writing Midnight Fires, which will be published in April by Perseverance Press. Writing about Wollstonecraft offers the chance to get into her head, to become her, to feel her passions and pains, the way I felt my farmer Ruth’s pain when the Feds killed her favorite cow Zelda in the end of Mad Cow Nightmare. Writing, then, is both pain and deepest pleasure, when light and order prevail in the end. It has given so much insight into other people and other worlds. How can one ordinary person live so many different lives—and all at once!
Nancy Means Wright
Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press--April,'10)
"Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft" Facebook page
Thursday, January 28, 2010
By Penny Warner
I didn’t plan to be a writer when I grew up. When I was a kid, I placed writers on pedestals—“writers” like Carolyn Keene, “author” of the Nancy Drew series. Larger than life, they seemed as fictional as their characters. Turns out some of them were—like Carolyn Keene. But not my other favorites like E.B. White, A.A. Milne, L. Frank Baum. With authors like that, I found it hard to believe that an ordinary person like me could become a writer.
Then, when I was in sixth grade, I got mono and missed two months of school. That’s when my mother handed me a copy of my first Nancy Drew mystery—“Secret in the Old Clock.” It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with the girl sleuth. I started wearing a trench coat, made my own sleuth kit, and wrote my first mystery, “The Mystery of Mr. X.” While Nancy Drew was fiction, she inspired me to follow my passion—and that passion turned out to be writing mysteries.
I’ve had 50-plus books published over the years, including eight mysteries and THE O
1. Create unforgettable characters: “You know
All stories are based on interesting characters—there are no exceptions. Introduce us to your character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Create realistic characters without using stereotypical traits, and include some surprises about the character that are believable. Finally, give the characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.
2. Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase
Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Listen to real conversations for realism, then edit and tighten them to make the dialogue readable. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.” Finally, read your dialogue aloud.
3. Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase
A vivid setting pulls the reader into the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.
4. Add mood and atmosphere:
Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and stimulate the emotions of the readers. Use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.
5. Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,”
Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense. Or you can write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, with the option of veering off if the story requires an alteration.
6. Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to
Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.
7. Create conflict:
There is no story without conflict. The protagonist must come up against an antagonist, which can be a person, an idea, a corporation, or some kind of evil. Conflict helps reveal the protagonist’s needs, values, and fears, and causes her to confront her demons, challenge herself, and become a hero of sorts.
8. Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall
Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.
9. Spark reader’s emotions: Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat on the door, but the panels would not give way. ~ Secret of the Old Clock
Crank up the reader’s involvement but increasing the character’s emotional risk. This way the reader will care about the story. If she can relate to the protagonist’s emotional jeopardy, she’ll be hooked on finding out what happens.
10. Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door
The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.
11. Make the situation hopeless: “We’re locked in!”
When all seems lost and the protagonist is about to give up because she’s running out of time and is under extreme pressure, she must find the courage to go on, make another decisions, and get herself out of this devastating trouble.
12. Give the protagonist strength: “Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm
As the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, she must pull out all her reserves and use her own skills to change the situation. This heroic attempt must also create growth and change in the protagonist.
13. Don’t give up:
I really believe the reason I’ve had over 50 books published is simply because—like Nancy Drew—I followed my passion and never gave up!
Penny Warner is the author of THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK, and the upcoming mystery series, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, from Penguin. She can be reached at www.pennywarner.com.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Diane Gilbert Madsen Q&A - Part 2
CMM: Do you have a favorite place to write: office, library, under the stars? Under the stairs?
DGM: I usually write in my office which is in my home. I live on a five-acre parcel in rural southwest
CMM: You do talks and booksignings… have you had any interesting experiences during that?
DGM: I love booksignings. You get to meet the most interesting and friendly people and you often get to hear from other people who’d like to write. I love to meet fans of my work who’ve read my book and want to get it inscribed. At a recent booksigning, I had Gary Reinstrom, the piper, come for a few hours. He and my video were the hits of the evening. It was around Christmas and he played Christmas songs on the pipes. It was wonderful.
CMM: Reviews are a mixed blessing for most authors; we love the good ones, hate the bad ones, and know they are just one person’s opinion. How do you deal with negative reviews? Do you even read reviews?
DGM: I just read an article on bad reviews and how a writer should NEVER comment on them. That being said, I regard reviews as a marketing tool. Good reviews help sell books and bad ones don’t. Obviously I desire to have good reviews, which “A Cadger’s Curse” has luckily garnered. But tastes vary – thank goodness – and not everyone is going to love you or your book.
CMM: Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you have other aspirations?
DGN: Growing up, I loved to read and went to the library faithfully every Saturday. I would read anything, but I was especially attracted to mysteries. When I was in grammar school, my cousin Sharon and I (in the same grade) liked to write “little mysteries.” We would do alternate chapters and amaze ourselves at how the plot turned out. I also loved the business world, and went on to become the Director of the Economic Development Department of the State of Illinois where I was in charge of the Tourism and Film and Economic Development offices. Then I owned my own business for over 20 years, including my own grantwriting business here in
CMM: What do you read? Any favorite authors?
DGM: My favorite authors are Doyle, Sayers, Christie, Tey and John Dickson Carr. I like to read Michael Connelly and Stuart Kaminsky (especially the Lew Fonesca series set in Sarasota), anything by Dick Francis, Nicholas Blake, Amanda Cross, Patricia Wentworth, Sara Woods, Barbara D’Amato, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, and John Dunning. There are so many good mystery writers out there right now, I can’t name them all. It’s like a feast - the second golden age of great mystery writers. I also like history and biography. Right now I’m in the middle of reading “The
My website is: www.dianegilbertmadsen.com
Friday, January 22, 2010
*Note... today, coincidentally, is Robbie Burns Day (The Cadger's Curse involves Robbie Burns!) The Scot would be 251 today. Raise a glass of whatever you tipple!
Q&A with Diane Gi
CMM: First, tell us a little about your writing history… did you write before the DD McGil series?
CMM: Now tell us about your DD McGil Literati Mystery Series; where did the idea for the series come from? What made you decide on a literature theme for your mysteries? DGM:
DGM:I’m an English major and our curse as well as our blessing is that we all write -- or try to. I did write an early murder mystery called “Wild Life” centering around art forgery, but it never got picked up. Then I was interested in writing True Crime but got diverted when I started the DD McGil Literati Mystery series.
DGM: The Literati Mystery Series is a melding of my two interests, history and mystery. I like to read about famous authors. They all have some hidden mysteries in their own adventuresome lives. I like to take these incidents in authors lives and speculate on how the story might have continued after the final page. So I decided to combine my speculations about incidents in authors lives with my other passion – mysteries - and create the Literati Mystery Series. In the first book in the series, “A Cadger's Curse – The Robert Burns Affair,” the mystery revolves around an incident in Robert Burns’ life. The mystery took shape when I read that Burns had taken a diamond tip pen and boldly scratched a treasonous verse on the window of the Lion’s Head Inn in
CMM: How do you create characters that can/will sustain a series of books? Do you know everything about them going in, or does that come bit by bit as you write the books?
CMM: Cozy mysteries generally take place in a small town, but you’ve set your DD McGil series in
“not-quite-cozy” rather than a “cozy.” I believe my story worked out very well in a large city where my heroine, DD McGil, can rely on a number of contacts offered in a large city. The larger venue also allows interactions which come out of “left-field” and keeps the mise en scene changing and unexpected. I don’t think I’m the only writer who’s done a “not-quite-cozy” in a big city. I wrote about
Check back here Wednesday for Part 2 of Diane Gilbert Madsen's Question and Answer with Cozy Murder Mysteries!
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Ten years ago, a talented young writer, Matt Witten, from nearby
Matt was not only a great teacher; he was incredibly supportive and encouraging to his students. He urged me to finish my first Lake George Mystery, An Affinity For Murder, and to enter the Malice Domestic Unpublished Writers Grant competition, which he’d won a few years before. Malice Domestic, an organization of mystery writers and readers, holds a mystery conference every spring in
The afternoon I picked up my phone and learned I was a winner of a Malice grant is still one of my all-time highs.
The next thing I knew I was getting calls from a literary agent suggesting he represent me. I didn’t realize what a miracle that was – an agent calling me, not once, not twice, but three times, before I stopped putting him off
The ups and down which followed made for a wild ride. The grant ($500 then, now $1000, plus registration for the Malice conference) was a terrific boost, but financial problems at the company which published the book plunged me into despair. Fortunately, things straightened out, and two years later Affinity (Oak Tree Publishing) had been published and was nominated as a Malice Domestic Best First Mystery.
Since then, I’ve published three more Lake George Mysteries (Beneath The Surface, Best Laid Plans and Secrets Dark and Deep) with the fifth, Cold Winter Nights, coming soon. (Hilliard and Harris)
This time I’ve set the story in winter and have included some of the cold weather activities we enjoy here, like skiing at fabulous
Loren gave me so much trouble as I was finishing this book, I was tempted to let the villain catch her. But maybe your readers will want to find out what happens for themselves. Cold Winter Nights is now available from Amazon, and will soon be at Hilliard and Harris and book stores.
The first four books were also published by Harlequin’s Worldwide Book Club. (www.eHarlequin.com Worldwide Library Worldwide Mysteries)Anne White
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Diane Gilbert Madsen
One of the obvious answers is that I like to write, and I like to read mysteries, so I’m writing what I’d like to read. My goal is to write an entertaining, amusing story with a good plot, engaging characters, and clues that are fair but still manage to misdirect the reader. I’m not striving to be socially relevant, and I don’t espouse causes. I leave that to others. I’m striving for goode olde entertainment. (Don’t you just hate it when people add all those extra “e’s?)
Another reason (and you probably won’t hear this from a lot of writers, but I’m being perfectly honest) is that over the years I’ve run across a number of people I don’t like, and writing mysteries give me a chance to kill off these folks. What a thrill to achieve the great satisfaction of getting rid of my foes and not have to suffer any real consequences! “A Cadger’s Curse” has five murders -- five being better than one. My husband Tom tells me I’ll never have to see a psychiatrist because I purge all my angst through the murders in the books. Tom also tells me he’s sure I’ll never run out of villains. (Does this mean he thinks I’ve made a lot of enemies?)
One unintended consequence of writing mysteries is that I have found people love to talk to a mystery author. It is great fun to talk with mystery fans, whom I find are invariably knowledgeable and friendly with wide ranging interests. Many fans want to write their own mystery novel, and they like to get reinforcement to convince them that it can be done.
Writing mysteries gives me an opportunity to combine a good mystery plot with interesting bits of history. I’ve always been interested in both mystery and history, and combining them both in my DD McGil Literati Mystery Series has been a fun challenge. I enjoy doing the research. For “A Cadger’s Curse,” I researched a true incident in the life of the great Scottish Bard, Robert Burns. In the second of the Literati Mystery Series, “Hunting for Hemingway,” coming out in September 2010, I take the consequences of a pivotal event in Hemingway’s life into modern day
When I attended the
A Cadger’s Curse – Midnight Ink – November 2009Hunting for Hemingway – Ink – September 2010
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Why I Write Historical Mysteries
M. E. KEMP
I write a series of historical mysteries set in Colonial days with two nosy Puritans as detectives. Well, Puritans were supposed to be nosy, to keep watch on their wayward neighbors. And a detective has to be nosy, so...Actually, I decided upon Puritans as a reaction to all the medieval mysteries featuring monks, nuns, sisters, brothers, etc. Increase ‘Creasy’ Cotton is a member of the famous Mather family who led the largest and richest church in al of the colonies. Except that Creasy’s congregation is made up of poor widows and sailors in
Assisting him is Hetty Henry, a wealthy widow with connections to high and low society. Hetty is such a pushy broad she took over the first book, MUR
Email M. E. Kemp at: mekemp at nycap.rr.com
Visit M. E. Kemp at: http://www.mekempmysteries.com
Thursday, January 7, 2010
It's not like I haven't thought of this before, but I think I need reminders every once in a while.
To read her post, go to: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2010/01/take-riskstay-true-to-your-voice-by.html
For more about her books, go to her website: http://www.jbstanley.com./
Monday, January 4, 2010
I finished two mystery books during the holidays:
The Case of the Tough Talking Turkey by Claudia Bishop
(The Casebook of Dr. McKenzie #2)
Berkley (Prime Crime), August 2007
288 pages Paperback
This new-to-me-author is now going on my 'must-glom' list, because I love her 'voice'. Voice, impossible to define, impossible to mistake, is that elusive quality that carries a reader along to the finish with no effort. A writer's 'voice' won't work for every reader, so when you stumble across one that does, you hang on for life!
This book, the second in the series, was funny, warm, smart and quick. I dub Claudia Bishop (if it hasn't already been done) the new Charlotte MacLeod, because that is exactly what Ms. Bishop's voice reminds me of, especially MacLeod's Professor Peter Shandy series.
I also read Dashing Through the Snow, a Christmas mystery by Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. This was a slight, light, fast read, without a lot of meat. Quite frankly, it felt 'phoned' in, like the two didn't put a lot of thought or time into it. Aside from that, it was an easy and relatively enjoyable read, but not one I'll remember a week from now. Or even a couple of days.
As always, I like to pass along info on websites Cozy Murder Mystery readers might enjoy. Check out this site, Mystery Readers International.
It lists reading groups, mystery bookstores, and is the online home of Mystery Reader's Journal. In association with that is this blog, by Janet Rudolph: http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/
So... we're ba-ack! And ready for a new year of murder, mayhem and fun!