Writing mysteries is a “flexible” process and as an author I must be tuned-in and willing to make changes . . . often serious changes. Throw out chapters, throw out characters, add new locations, scenes. Pump up the senses: add fragrances, colors, cacophonous sounds.
I often reach a sticking point around the middle of the novel, which leads me to inject a “turn of events” into the story. This turn of events is often not planned, but gives the story a much-needed jolt.
In my current book, there are two NYPD homicide detectives, one in the past and one in the present. Both are following leads in a murder case (as detectives are wont to do.) Each lead spins off other leads, but in the end, the leads peter out (as my brain does) and they are left, frustrated, and wondering what the next step might be.
When this happens to me, I simply just murder someone. What? you say. It’s as simple as that. Murder someone.
Now, this “someone” absolutely must have relevance to the story. Please don’t bring in your next-door neighbor unless they’ve had a role in the story already. In addition, there must be a darn good reason to kill this someone off. If it’s your neighbor, the old “fence dispute” doesn’t cut it.
Yes, a fresh murder can get the readers’ (and writer’s) mind spinning in new directions. What did I miss? Why didn’t I see that coming? If X is now dead, she couldn’t have been the culprit.
A mid-novel murder is always good to keep readers on their toes, working to figure out the mystery. That’s the point. I write mysteries. The longer I can keep my readers baffled and confounded about what’s really going on, the more enjoyable the read.
One of the most important, but often most difficult part of writing a novel is selecting names for your characters. When you begin you might already have some in mind. But as the characters morph during the writing process, that name might no longer fit. If you’re writing a series and the same characters reappear, you still need to name new characters.
Villains’ names are particularly important to get right. Common sense tells you that “Melvin Fuddrucker” is probably not the best handle for a serial killer. Or is it? Do you want to throw the reader off and let him like or sympathize with your bad guy? Do you want the reader to think: Melvin, hmm, an accountant or a store clerk, when in reality, Melvin is a triathlete, computer genius, and serial killer? Obfuscation may be a good thing.
The good guys shouldn’t be shortchanged either. You want your characters to be memorable and to have your readers calling them by name six months after they’ve read your book. I have a hard time remembering names six hours after reading some books. But characters from other books stay with me for a lifetime. LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry comes to mind. How can you forget Augustus, Call, Newt, or for heaven’s sake, Pea Eye?
So how do you choose names? One thing to remember. Try not to have too many characters with the same first initial. So, Bob, Bill, Binky, Belinda, and Bruce would probably be confusing. A couple are okay, of course. My two main characters are Maggie and Mead. Duh. One’s a first name, one’s a last. But I’ve avoided other “M” names unless they are historically necessary.
Also, unusual names are okay but too many are dicey. Throw a few Jenovas in with the Jennifers. Don’t make them too hard to pronounce, either out loud or in the reader’s head. It’s frustrating. Of course, if many of your characters are from countries other than the States, throw that idea out the window. But, perhaps, giving them a nickname will make them easier to recall.
One problem with historical novels is that using the real names of people involved can present problems. For instance, in some books by Sharon Kay Penman, one of my all-time favorite writers of historical England, she explained that the spelling of some characters had to be changed to distinguish one Maud from another Maude. (Lots of Henrys, Johns and James as well. Yoiks!)
Timing is very important. Names fall in and out of favor over the years, so take care not to use a very modern YA name like Aisha or Brandon in a book about merry old England.
When you’re creating a character name from scratch, consider these: personality, looks, age, ethnicity, stature in the community, occupation, attitudes toward politics, etc., values, whether the character is single, married, gay. Does the character remind you of a good friend, a bad friend, a worker, colleague, television or movie character (Dexter? Miss Marple? Morse? Lynley? Zen?) Does the character have a sense of humor? Is the character always depressed, upbeat, brutally honest, or unbearably shy? What are their quirks, flaws, hobbies, passions, hates? Does he carry around a blue plastic bag instead of a briefcase like Tony Hill?
Do you want the character’s name to conjure up something in the reader’s mind? Like Charlie Parker in John Connolly’s books makes me automatically think of the jazz musician.
I had a difficult time giving my villain in TIME EXPOSURE a meaningful name. He was, by profession, a Shakespearean actor in disguise on the battlefield as a sutler (a guy who went around selling goods to the foot soldiers.) What name would this actor choose for himself? He selected the name Jack Cade for his cover. Why?
Jack Cade was actually a real person who led the peasants in the Kent rebellion of 1450. He was also a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. In the play he talks to his friend, Dick the Butcher, whose most famous line is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I thought my villain would get a kick out of that, and since he probably didn’t want to be called Dick the Butcher, Jack Cade he became.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your character’s names. If you want your readers to love a character, naming him Hitler or Attila would be a tough sell. Find names you like as you read books or newspapers, watch movies, or meet new folks at a party, and jot them down for the future. You might even try the phone book, but then you don’t have the advantage of seeing the name in action on a real person. Make something up, but explain in the novel what the name means to the characters involved.
While Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it would be hard to conjure up a picture of a beautiful flower if you called the rose, Skunk.
Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
Emotional upheavals can translate to great writing
I’ve had a rather tumultuous week since I returned from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. I started out high on beauty and serenity, natural landscapes and wildlife. I was calm, tranquil, close to meditative.
Then my sweet dog of thirteen and a half years passed away. It was downhill from there.
You know that feeling of being gut-punched, but you weren’t? Of having your throat close up but you’re not sick? Of crying during a comedy? Of laughing during a tragic drama? High one minute, low the next? Forgetting why you walked into a room? Not feeling particularly hungry one minute, but ravenous the next? In the words of C.S. Lewis:
“Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
This is grief. Grief . . . at the loss of a loved one, human or animal, or even the loss of a job, a car, a house. Not pleasant. Still, for writers, it can give us that added insight into the emotional underlay of our characters. Grief, or other intense emotions, like anger, can provide that extra dimension to boost ordinary characters into incisive, sharp, exquisite personalities. It’s hard to write what you can’t feel, or what you haven’t ever felt.
Actors practice getting into character by living or reliving these emotions and translating them into behaviors. Screaming, crying, yanking their hair out, pounding the table, running away or simply sleeping. So many ways to act out grief.
Writers must translate those same emotions into the written word. I encourage you to take these emotions and render them to words, then to sentences and scenes. How have your own experiences of these sensations, like grief, helped you bring your characters to life?
It was three in the morning. A slight tremor shook the windows. The doors began to rattle in their frames. The bed seemed to move. Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.
I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy. I knew what was happening. Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees. What a story!
I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing. Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails. I was peculiarly disappointed.
My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda. He had just called the front desk. “Just a strong wind.” Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption. Nothing. Bummer.
Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed. Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world. But how could that happen to us? It only happens to others. Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived. Nice folks.
Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy. Maybe that was it. Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book: Misadventures in Italy. Uh uh. Stick to mysteries. How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii. A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old. How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old? Whose bone was it? A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone? Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone. How old could the material be? What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?
Clues. Ahhh. More, more.
And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder? The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites? People from Herculaneum. What a backdrop for a historical mystery. And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum. (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)
Whether I write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background. Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them. Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.
I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now. Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.
This week I’m posting my interview with Magdalena Johansson:to honor my B.R.A.G. Medallion award for
I hope you enjoy.
I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Lynne Kennedy to A Bookaholic Swede to talk with me about her story, Time Exposure.
With a Masters’ Degree in Science and more than 28 years as a science museum director, Lynne Kennedy has had the opportunity to study history and forensic science, both of which play significant roles in her novels. She has written five historical mysteries, each solved by modern technology.
Time Exposure: photography meets digital photography to solve a series of murders in two centuries.
The Triangle Murders was the winner of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Mystery Category, 2011, and was awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Award for independent books of high standards.
Deadly Provenance has also been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion and was a finalist for the San Diego Book Awards. With the release of Deadly Provenance, Lynne has launched a “hunt for a missing Van Gogh,” the painting which features prominently in the book. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” has, in actuality, been missing since WWII.
Her fourth book, Pure Lies, won the 2014 “Best Published Mystery” award by the San Diego Book Awards, and was a finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award.
Time Lapse, her fifth and latest mystery, premiered at the end of 2016 to all 5-star reviews. She blogs regularly and has many loyal readers and fans.
Can you tell me what Time Exposure is about?
Briefly: In present day Washington, D.C., renowned digital photographer Maggie Thornhill discovers a mummified corpse in her basement. She believes it to be her ancestor, famed Civil War photographer Joseph Thornhill. The truth she uncovers, however, will change written history as we know it.
Can you tell me more about Maggie Thornhill?
Time Exposure is the first of the Maggie Thornhill series. Maggie is 30-year old digital photographer who heads up a lab at Georgetown University, Washington DC. She often works with law enforcement to help cases in which photography can be used. She is bright, does not suffer fools and, essentially, wants to rid the world of bad guys.
Why is Maggie Thornhill convinced that it’s Joseph Thornhill that she has found in the basement?
Maggie’s great, great grandfather was a famous Civil War photographer (and the reason she pursued a career in photography.) Through his diaries and photographs, she learns that he had taken photographs of a mysterious civilian on the battlefield, whom he believed was a killer. Maggie assumes that this killer found out about Joseph, murdered him, and buried him in his own basement, now her basement.
Who is Joseph Thornhill’s mentor Alexander Gardner?
In all my novels, I try to make the historical parts of the story as authentic as possible, both in real events and real characters. Alexander Gardner was, in fact, a famous Civil War photographer who began working under Mathew Brady, but then became famous in his own right. Many of the well-known Civil War photographs, and those of Abraham Lincoln, were taken by Gardner. He is an important character in Time Exposure, because my fictional character, photographer Joseph Thornhill, works with Gardner on the battlefields.
Can you tell me more about photography during the Civil War?
The Civil War was the first major “conflict” to be photographed extensively. Besides the portraits of soldiers, etc., done as tintypes and ambrotypes (replacing daguerrotypes, for the most part), photographers who ventured onto the battlefield had a difficult task. They used wagons for their supplies, often called “Whatizit” wagons since they looked odd. The newest technology at the time was the “wet-collodion” process, where an image was captured on chemically coated pieces of plate glass, a time-consuming venture. Also the cameras themselves were big, bulky, and heavy and took time to set up. One interesting note: photographers often set up the scene after a battle to get the best shot. Sad to say, but yes, the photos were often staged.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I was a museum director in San Diego, we hosted a Smithsonian Lecture Series. One program from the National Museum of American History was about Civil War photography. I was hooked. That, combined with my love of history plus my experience in science and technology, inspired me to write mysteries that took place in the past, around real historical events, but solve them today with modern technology.
Any author’s that have inspired you in your writing?
I think the book that launched my writing adventure is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. A western, can you believe? The reason I found this book so special was its characters. They are so real and rich you cannot possibly forget them. Any of them. The plot, the setting, the atmosphere, dialogue, etc. all work too. But the characters are simply unforgettable.
What are you reading now?
I read many types of books: mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction. I also read a lot of non-fiction, particularly in researching my books. My favorite author these days is Kristin Hannah. She has a lovely style and characters that resonate and remain with you long after the book is finished. Unfortunately, when I try to think of a favorite mystery, none really come to mind. They all blend together. I write mysteries, so what does that say? At the moment I’m reading David Baldacci’s The Last Mile, and, frankly, am disappointed. The good news? There are so many books to choose from. The bad news? There are so many books to choose from.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
Since my book goes back in time and is about photography in two centuries, Time Exposure seemed like a fitting title.
Who designed your book cover?
Based on an idea from a friend and colleague, also a writer, the concept of looking through a digital camera screen at a scene back in time to the Civil War was a perfect fit. The artists at BookBaby Publishers did the execution.
A Message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Magdalena has chosen to interview Lynne Kennedy who is the author of, Time Exposure, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Time Exposure, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.