Experiences Make You a Better Writer

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

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.

B.R.A.G. Medallion Award Interview

B.R.A.G. Medallion Award Interview

This week I’m posting my interview with Magdalena Johansson:to honor my B.R.A.G. Medallion award for
Time Exposure.

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.

A Jump-Start Outline

A Jump-Start Outline

For me, outlining is extremely important.  Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all.  I begin with my “jump-start” outline.   Now, what the heck is that, you ask.  I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual.  Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines.  But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.

Modern (and Past) Story Line

  1. Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.

Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.

  1. Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky.  Use bullet points.  They’ll grow organically as you write.
  1. Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France.  Ooh la la.  Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.

Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.

  1. Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be.  As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one.  I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book.  (You’ll have to read it and see.  Ha!)

With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft.  At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc.  Now, I get into serious outlining.  More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline.  What will happen next, next, next.

I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other.  I refine their conflicts.  I add details to the settings.

Then I start again.  Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write.  Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write.  I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.

Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need.  Ideas welcome.

Are Dark Mysteries Today’s Fashion or Fad?

Are Dark Mysteries Today’s Fashion or Fad?

In my last blog I talked about what novel writers can learn from screenwriters.  Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments.  One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing.  The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark. (Thanks, Mark Hunter!)

This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category.  And they are legion.  Let me name a few you might be familiar with:  Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist.  Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title:  Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer.  (Really?)

So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect.  When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up.  And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.

Don’t get me wrong.  The villains in novels can be just as rotten.  However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced.  Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller.  Excellent series.  The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series.  Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.

But back to point.  There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark.  See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.)  The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley.  Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category. 

To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia?  Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?

I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

Luring the Reader In

Luring the Reader In

One of the most difficult tasks for writers, but also one of the most important, is creating the back (jacket) cover text.

It must be brief but intriguing, succinct but riveting.  For discussion sake, here is the back cover text for my latest book, Pure Lies, a mystery about the Salem Witch Trials.  It is the same text I used for the ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest “pitch” and it got me through the first two rounds.  Let me know what you think or share your own back cover copy.

Two women, separated by three centuries, are connected by a legacy of greed, depravity and deceit–a legacy which threatens to make them both victims of the Salem witch trials.

1692, Salem, Massachusetts Born in a time and place of fierce religious fervor, 16-year old Felicity Dale has only endless church meetings and the drudgery of chores to look forward to.  When her friends begin accusing neighbors of witchcraft, she fears the devil is in Salem.  By chance, however, she discovers that the accusations of her “afflicted” friends are false.  What had begun as a youthful diversion has been twisted through seduction and blackmail by powerful men into a conspiracy for profit.  Nineteen people will pay with their lives.

Today, Washington, D.C.  Maggie Thornhill is a renowned digital photographer in Georgetown who possesses a passion for history. As her Ph.D. dissertation, Maggie takes on a project to electronically archive the original documents from the Salem witch trials. She observes discrepancies in the handwriting of the magistrate’s signature on certain land deed transfers — land that belonged to the witches.  When a professor studying the documents is murdered, she begins to suspect that the trials and hangings were a result of simple mortal greed not religious superstition.

 

Murder Requires Creativity

Murder Requires Creativity

Mystery writers have a tough decision:  how to kill their fictional victims.

instruments-of-tortureThere are far too many ways to murder to mention here.  (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds.)  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.

triangle-bodiesUnrecognizable 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.