Writing mysteries is an exercise in pitting bad characters against good.
There are degrees of bad and good, of course, but in compelling stories, the bad character is often seriously, diabolically, dangerously bad. He (or she) will certainly have good points. He may be charming, clever, handsome, sympathetic, and have superior interpersonal skills–think Ted Bundy–but the reader learns soon that these are just a cover, enabling him to get close to people in order to do his dirty work.
I have used individuals in my books to play the villain. An art critic, a factory owner, a southern sympathizer, a rich landowner. In others, I have used a group (or blast, or den, or herd, or flock, or conflagration—see my last blog on word play) of baddies, ie: Nazis, where most folk will agree that it’s easier to count the good ones than the bad.
A “collective” villain makes for an interesting read. The Nazis, the hedge fund crooks, the greedy corporate thieves, the Republicans, the Democrats, the tax collectors, the CIA, the FBI, the police, lawyers, politicians, doctors . . . all can play the role of collective villains.
In the case of the Nazis, you expect evil. In the case of doctors, you may not. Anyone can be a villain. If your experience tells you Nazis are bad, a good Nazi will be an interesting character. Same is true in reverse for a doctor. Then you have the Nazi doctor and you won’t know what to believe. But I digress.
A good writer will build each character with good points and bad points that the reader will both admire and loathe. It’s a fine line to walk. If your reader loathes your character too much, he (or she) might put the book down.
In the case of the Nazis, there is, built-in, a sense of evil, danger, and villainy. And because Nazis were historically real, readers will have an innate sense of foreboding right from the first page.
Hence, my next book will return to the Nazis and World War II. The theme will be not be confiscated art . . . but stolen music.
Hurry . . . Turn the Page!
“Amanda stepped off the elevator on the lower level of the parking garage. At ten o’clock on a Saturday night, the level was empty except for her car . . . and one other she didn’t recognize. A sound of dripping water and the soft scurrying of animal feet – rats? – made her throat close.
She swiveled her head in search of anything or anyone nearby then took a tentative step toward her car. Then another step and faster, faster, until she was almost at a sprint. Her high heels clicked on the concrete floor and echoed in the cavernous space. Finally, she reached her car. Damn, why didn’t she have her keys ready?
Amanda fumbled through her bag, her heart now ratcheted up, pumping blood through her ears. All she could hear was the furious whooshing sound of her own fear.
There, her keys, at the bottom, now in her hand. She clicked the fob and the latches opened. She reached for the handle, but before her fingers closed around it, she detected a breathy squeak of rubber soled shoes behind her. She dropped her bag, swung around with a gasp, hands clenched into fists, ready to defend herself and . . .”
So, what do you think? Tension? I always love the late-at-night parking garage scene. Scares the heck out of me, even now.
What is tension, really, and why is it so important in writing? Even if you’re not writing a mystery. Even if you’re writing non-fiction.
The noun tension has its Latin roots in “tendere,” which means to stretch, and tension occurs when something is stretched either physically or emotionally to its limits. Strained relations between countries can cause political tensions to rise. Tension can be added to a rubber band by stretching it to its limits. By the way, you can release nervous tension by shooting that rubber band at the local bully.
Tension is the means to get your reader to turn the page, particularly if it’s used at the end of a chapter as a cliffhanger. People, for the most part, don’t like to leave things unresolved. They want to find the solution, even if it’s an unsatisfactory one (that’s another story.)
While you cannot (or should not) distort facts when writing non-fiction, tension around real events can ramp up the readers’ pulse just as thrillers can. Take “The Monuments Men,” for instance. How tense can a situation be when you have a group of men and women trying to save the art and monuments of a Europe at war? When, finally the fighting ends, and they discover, in a dark, damp mine in Austria, a cache of hidden loot that would make King Midas gasp? When, they manage to “derail” an art train bound for Germany with stolen paintings of Masters like Leonardo.
Now that’s tension. That’s real life. Whew.
I welcome your feedback and samples of tension in your writing.
It’s become a tradition for me to send this story out every Christmas. I hope you enjoy.
When it started, World War I was predicted to last only a few weeks. (The same was true of the Civil War, by the way.) Instead, by December of 1914, WWI had already claimed nearly a million lives. In fact, over fifteen million died in a war that dragged on for four miserable years.
But a remarkable thing happened on December 24, 1914. The front fell silent except for the singing of Silent Night. A truce! There are many examples of truces during wars, but none as famous as this one. The Christmas Truce of 1914.
In the Ypres region of Belgium on Christmas Eve, guns stopped, leaving a deathly silence across the fields. Then suddenly the British watched in astonishment as Germans began to set tiny trees along their trench lines. Soon a familiar tune with unfamiliar words carried across No Man’s Land, the battered and desolate space between the enemies. Silent Night. Stille Nacht.
Soon the British were singing along with the Germans. Soldiers on both sides crawled out of their trenches to meet in the middle and greet their enemy. They exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs. Perhaps a drink or two. And they collected their dead and wounded, carrying them back to their respective sides.
Peace for the day. Only one day because the next day they were back killing each other. Is there something wrong with this picture?
The story of the Christmas Truce came to my attention after reading the non-fiction, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild, an amazing story of WWI. I highly recommend. http://www.amazon.com/End-All-Wars-Rebellion-1914-1918/dp/B008PIC0T8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356046840&sr=1-1&keywords=to+end+all+wars
I’ll leave you with this thought. If Christmas can bring together mortal enemies for a day, why not for a week, a month, a year or longer? Or forever?
I hope you click on the youtubes below. They will make you sad and happy but most of all hopeful. Wishing you a happy holiday and a prosperous and healthy New Year.
Belleau Wood: Christmas Truce by Garth Brooks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjXa7DnaGjQ
Christmas Truce 1914, Music with captions to tell the story. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsCpLMPI7IY
Behind the Christmas Story: The Christmas Truce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgLcvjA8NDk
Christmas Truce of 1914. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p05E_ohaQGk
I thought I would share a brief “behind-the-scenes” tour of my most popular book to date, Deadly Provenance.
Originally titled Provenance (until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island,) Deadly Provenance is about the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it’s hard to know where to begin; thus, my plan is to write several blogs. First, there’s the Nazi confiscation of art, how it happened, who was involved, and why? Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed as the heroine she truly was. In the film, Monuments Men, Cate Blanchette played her character, but looked nothing like her as you can see from the photo here.
Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
On another front, the book brings up a hypothetical situation where the protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply, I promise.
Confiscated degenerate art stored at Jeu de Paume. Photo: Archives des Musees Nationaux
I often visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries
Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
Deadly Provenance gave me a glimpse into the art world and I enjoyed creating a mystery against this backdrop. The book made it to the front page of San Diego Union-Tribune and also to NPR radio.
Unfortunately, Vase With Oleanders is still missing today, as are many precious pieces of art stolen during WWII.
Perhaps you might check in your attic . . . just in case.
A few months ago, I premiered my sixth book, Hart of Madness. With several book signings under my belt and a successful marketing program under way, I am ready to take on the next project. But, I can’t decide on the topic for my next book.
You might think that writers have a hundred ideas for stories waiting to jump onto the page. My books are rather specialized, however. I need a tragic event or time period to use as a backdrop. The place where a mystery unfolds. Such as the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, New York City, or the Salem Witch trials, in 1692, Massachusetts.
I also need a modern story line, where science or technology can resolve the historic mystery. Digital photography and facial recognition as in the Civil War photographs, document analysis, as in the witch trials, DNA, fiber, ballistics or fire forensics to name a few areas of specialty in crime investigations.
And, most important, I need a mystery to get me jazzed about doing the research required to make a fictional account as authentic as possible. The further back in time I go, the more difficult it is to make the modern story work.
Here are a few ideas I’ve bandied about:
- 1492 The Spanish Inquisition and a lost pendant of Queen Isabella, which turns up mysteriously today in a box of jewelry discovered by a Jewish descendant of the Inquisition.
- 1587 The lost colony of Roanoke, an island off North Carolina. What happened to the missing English men, women and children that settled this colony before Jamestown?
- 1917 The disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, one loaded with munitions. The tragedy killed more than 2,000 people, many school children.
- 1942 World War II A Jewish musician is condemned to a concentration camp and his music is stolen by German musician. In modern times, can the music be attributed to the real composer?
I’d love to get your feedback on these ideas or any others you think might fit my book concept of historical mysteries solved by modern technology. Many thanks.