Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To the Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She was teaching her brain to prepare for those bumps and curves by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own, almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique is crucial in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. Perhaps it’s a cop getting ready to interview a suspect. From Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others, visualize Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan:
“Carol stared through the two-way mirror at the man in the interview room. Ronald Edmund Alexander looked nothing like the popular image of a pedophile. He wasn’t shifty or sweaty. He wasn’t dirty or sleazy. He looked exactly like a middle manager who lived in the suburbs with a wife and two children. There was no dirty raincoat, just an off-the-peg suit, an unassuming charcoal grey. Pale blue shirt, burgundy tie with a thin grey stripe. Neat haircut, no vain attempt to hide the way he was thinning on top.”
Picture the room and a man seated there through the glass. Visualize the suspect, very possibly a child molester, and feel Carol’s frustration at his very ordinariness, the exact antithesis of what she expects a monster to look like. Could she be wrong? Are we being misled by his description?
Follow Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s Reversal, when he makes a trip to Fryman Canyon Park, an unexpected natural enclave above the madness of LA.
“Fryman was a rugged, inclined park with steep trails and flat-surface parking and observation area on top and just off Mulholland. Bosch had been there before on cases and was familiar with its expanse. He pulled to a stop with his car pointing north and the view of the San Fernando Valley spread before him. The air was pretty clear and the vista stretched all the way across the valley to the San Gabriel Mountains. The brutal week of storms that had ended January had cleared the skies out and the smog was only now climbing back into the valley’s bowl.”
Harry has been here before and is familiar with the area, its quirky smog patterns and unpredictable weather. Now, so are you.
Visualization is more than “description.” It’s about engaging the senses (see an earlier blog I wrote about this) to get a visceral feel for the scene. Picture a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. Now give the couch history–every crack in the leather represents a different house it has lived in or a different person who curled up on its soft hide. It was loved, it was beaten, it was ruined. Even a couch can have personality. What does it say about its owners?
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director. Direct.
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims. There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds or Supernatural.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.
When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around 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 was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. 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?
Then there are the players. 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 in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. 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.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. 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 here.
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” 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 but central to the storyline, 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.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
I admit it. I’m an animal person. I love them all but am partial to dogs and have had many and still do. I’ve read many “animal” books and find them endearing. Today’s blog, though, is not about writing animal stories, but about integrating animals into your novels to give your humans depth, compassion and vulnerability.
Comic relief is one reason writers insert animals into their stories. I recently watched (again) Lonesome Dove on television and laughed (again) at the scenes of the two pigs following the wagon out of Lonesome Dove to embark on a journey north. The journey would be fraught with drama and trauma, and the pigs added a light aspect to ease the tension. But they actually did more than that.
These two sweet little pink creatures gave us insight into one of the main characters of Lonesome Dove, Augustus McCrae. Sure, he hollered at them, kicked dirt at them, spit at them, but he also smiled at them, enjoyed their antics and encouraged them to join the entourage to Montana. What did that say about Gus, a former Texas Ranger who would hang an old friend for breaking the law? He had a definite soft side.
Characters that have a seriously dark job, like a cop or detective, need to have a way to show their human side. Relationships with the opposite sex, kids and family, even friends and colleagues can work. But so can animals. Take my NYC homicide detective, Frank Mead, in The Triangle Murders. In a dialogue, with his sergeant, Mead explains how he came to own a blue and gold, extremely noisy killer macaw named Dexter.
“What’s with the bird?” Jefferies said.
“Dumb move.” Frank sighed.
“Brought my car into a garage out in Canarsie. The bird was in the back of the shop squawking up a storm. Real nasty place, they didn’t give a shit about him. He was covered in grease. So I took him. Fifty bucks. They sold him just like that. I figured I’d clean him up and give him away, to some good home or something.” His face reddened.
“Kinda got used to the company. He’s incredibly smart, talks and, well, never mind. Stupid ass bird.”
Mead, a hard-boiled homicide cop, has a gruesome murder to solve, a dead wife always on his mind, an estranged daughter he feels guilty about. And yet he saves this kooky parrot. Would you have expected that of him? Or are you surprised?
Animals have played similar roles in mysteries for decades. Think Raymond Chandler’s The Thin Man. I can never forget the first movie and my introduction to Myrna Loy as the character, Nora Charles. Picture the scene: Nick Charles is in a nightclub bar being asked by a young woman to take a case, when Nora bursts in carrying Christmas packages and trying to hold onto Asta, her mischievous terrier, by the lead. Asta barrels into the room and Nora winds up face down on the floor, packages strewn everywhere. Unfazed, she gets up, brushes herself off and carries on.
Her dog was the perfect device to show us Nora’s personality. And it was dead-on. Nora is generally unfazed by embarrassing moments like these. But how would you know that without tedious narrative? By using Asta.
Other well-known authors use animals in similar ways. In Robert Parker’s Spenser books, you meet his dog, Pearl, and can picture her lying on the floor on her back with four feet in the air. How many of us are familiar with that pose? She’s entirely comfortable, not fearful or concerned in this position about any danger. What does that say about Spenser and his relationship with Pearl and the environment he provides for her? Safe, sheltered and most probably well-loved.
Elizabeth George, another dog person, has inserted a Longhaired Dachshund, Peach, into her stories. How does she integrate Peach with her characters to give them depth and breadth of human qualities. Yes, this is a quiz.
I know I will personally continue to use animals in my books. I encourage you to consider doing the same. They can add a sympathetic, sensitive and loving element to your humans . . . in ways other humans simply can’t.
I received this sweet poem in a Christmas card but am having trouble finding the poet. The closest I can come is a similar poem by Helen Steiner Rice. Both poems are lovely but if anyone knows who wrote the one below, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!
My Christmas Card List
*There is a list of folks I know
All written in a book,
And every year at Christmas time
I go and take a look.
And this is when I realizedf
Those names are all a part,
Not of the book they’re written in
But deep inside my heart
*For each name stands for someone
Who has touched my life sometime,
And in that meeting they’ve become
A special friend of mine.
I really feel that we’re composed
Of each remembered name,
And my life is so much better
Than it was before they came.
*Once you’ve known that “someone”
All the years cannot erase,
The memory of a pleasant word
Or of a friendly face.
So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine,
Of names upon a list that are
Forgotten in between.
*For when I send a Christmas card
That is addressed to you,
It is because you’re on the list
Of folks I’m indebted to.
And whether I have known you
For many years or few,
The greatest gift that life can give
Is having friends like you.