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.
I found this article particularly interesting with the holidays coming and its ties to my research into my mystery about the Salem Witch Trials, Pure Lies. Sexual obsession is not a concept usually associated with Puritans, but this sheds light on a grim and repressed period of time in American history.
“America’s Thanksgiving holiday goes back at least 388 years to the year following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims were among a number of sects called Puritans, and like many Puritan sects, the Pilgrims came to America essentially because they thought 17th Century England much too bawdy.(1) That England of the time was bawdy — a raucous bawdiness in full bloom — there’s no doubt. But the idea that the Puritans (and Pilgrims) suffered from religious persecution in England is probably a myth. What they suffered from was unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life.
So various Puritan colonies were established in America, colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior. It’s an American cultural heritage that few Americans ever talk about, except maybe when they read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a novel about the miseries of an adulterous couple in a Puritan community. Our custom is for three or four generations of family to sit down at a Thanksgiving dinner with hardly a memory that what the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about was sexual obsession.
A set of ideas about human sexual behavior so strong that the ideas result in strict rules that govern a community by threat of physical punishment easily morphs from philosophy into obsession — and that’s exactly what happened once the Puritans came into control of laws in their colonies in the New World.
The background of the Puritan obsession with sex is a fascinating thread in the history of Western culture. The obsession apparently originated in a close literal reading of the Bible, a fervent belief that the main causes of the suffering of all mankind were 1) the disobedience of Adam and Eve in seeking knowledge of sex, 2) the shame of their nakedness, and 3) their sexual desire for each other. Taking these causes as axioms for social doctrine about sexual behavior led the literalists (fundamentalists) easily into social tyranny. The sexual act itself became the “original sin” — an irony, since the sexual act was the only means available to produce progeny to replace those who died.
The old New England children’s rhyme tells it all: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
And the origins? The fervor against sexuality evidently originated in ancient Hebrew law, the ancient fear that man was weakened by sexual intercourse, ancient references to the sex act as the “little death” and a form of castration. In their morning prayers, Orthodox Jews still proclaim, “I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a woman.”
Sexuality was inherently evil, the sex act an abomination and a sin, women morally inferior and sources of temptation. If the sex act was needed to produce a new generation, let it be accomplished without lust. So much for the mechanics of Darwinian sexual selection. From a biological standpoint, it’s a wonder the Western world did not go extinct before the Renaissance. But it’s no wonder at all that countless women (and many men) were driven into madness by the incompatibility between the social tyranny of their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage and their evolved biology.
At the Thanksgiving table we think of turkey, children, and grandparents. Let it be so. We need the comforts, especially in our current time. But we should also be thankful that we’ve come out of the darkness of the past, the darkness of ignorance and social tyranny. That too is something that needs the giving of thanks.
Note (1). Whatever “persecution” the Pilgrims suffered in Europe was political rather than religious. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. The sect of Puritans who came to be known as Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Anglican Church. Other Puritan sects did not demand separation. It was the vocal opposition of Pilgrim leaders to the Anglican Church and the King of England that caused their problems with government. The Pilgrims left England for Holland, were unhappy in Holland, and eventually achieved financing by English investors and migrated to America.”
Written by Dan Agin and posted 3/18/2010, updated 11/17/2011. Reprinted from the Huffington Post.
Traditional books are still popular.
I recently read a study by Pew Institute on how many people read e-books vs. traditional books. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/19/slightly-fewer-americans-are-reading-print-books-new-survey-finds/ I was surprised to learn that traditional books are still popular, and their numbers have dropped only slightly. This brings me to a blog I wrote several years ago, before I had a fancy tablet on which to read both Nook and Kindle books.
The post is a bit dated, but it still holds true for me. How about you?
The house was dark. It was raining outside, chilly inside. I had no appointments, no particular place to be for a rare afternoon. I didn’t feel like writing (my book, that is.) I didn’t feel like Facebooking or Tweeting or connecting on Linked-In.So I curled up on the couch with what I hoped would be a good book. “The Emperor of All Maladies,” is a beautifully written non-fiction tome on cancer. 550 plus pages. Pulitzer prize winner. I bought it in an expensive paperback version because it has a series of picture plates inside, which are easier to examine than in an e-book. I also bought it because I had a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble. And I bought it because, well . . .
Pulitzers should be read in traditional book style.
So on this dark, dreary day, I propped myself up on my soft leather couch with this amazing book. (It really is wonderful!) But I had to get up and readjust the lights in the room because I couldn’t adjust the font size, and I had to find a cushion to lean the book on because cancer is so heavy – physically and figuratively. Honestly, did you ever try reading a large book on your lap in dim light with old eyes?
After an hour or so, my eyes and my arms got tired, so I switched to a fluffy, inexpensive indie mystery I had started on my Nook. Ahh, the glow-light made it a delight to read and it was so lightweight in my hands, I wound up dropping it a few times. But then I forgot who one of the characters was and wanted to go back to the first chapter to check. Hmm. Not as easy as flipping the pages. When I finally returned to my current page, I got a signal that the battery was low. Ach.
Which book version is more practical? That’s up to you to decide.
For me, it’s time for a nap while my Nook re-charges.
Every so often I visit my book pages on Amazon to see if any new reviews have come in. Some of the initial reviews were family and friends, of course, so I knew they’d be pretty positive. But when the new reader reviews started coming in, I was fascinated. Some were funny, some not so.
Just as in writing a book, writing a review reveals a glimpse into the writer’s true identity — on which side of the political aisle s/he stands. How s/he feels about love, hate, money, ethnicity, religion, values and much more. I learned something from all of them so I decided to share a few with you.
TIME EXPOSURE 5 stars: “Excellent Story! This was a fascinating book. I literally couldn’t put it down. I had seen movies about Booth, but none of them impressed me. This book did. I loved the twists and turns. It was well written with no errors at all. It kept me reading it until I finished.”
TIME EXPOSURE 4 stars: “Kennedy has the knack. This was another fun read…a little over-the-top plot wise but it’s an arguable sequence of events and given the constancy of greed and political corruption I found myself sympathetic to the story. The conclusion is less compelling but I do recommend this one. Lots of Civil War info.”
I’m bummed this reviewer didn’t like the conclusion. This was a real twist . . . or so I thought. Ah well.
DEADLY PROVENANCE 5 stars: “An author who can capture a period in time as well as Rockwell does on canvas. An intriguing display of mystery and perhaps many ways to look at a long held opinion of a time where nothing was sacred.”
I’d love more of these, wouldn’t you? Honest, I don’t know this person. But I’d like to.
DEADLY PROVENANCE 3 stars: “Art Crime and WW2 Easy fun read…. Detectives and art are always an interesting combination, add ww2 to the mix and it’s a hit.”
What made it three rather than 4 stars?
PURE LIES 2 stars: “Not up to Kennedy’s usual standards. This rework of the Salem Witch Trials is heavy-handed and much too long. I saw the ending coming from mid-book — too bad. I’m a fan of Deadly Provenance. This one …not so much.
I really appreciate comments like this. It’s honest and she says why she rated it low.
PURE LIES 5 stars: “There are two stories in this book – I definitely recommend it – especially for book club folks. I also think it should be made into a movie. Lynne does her research and picks her subject matter carefully. Greed, real estate values, hysterical young, bored maidens and corrupt (Puritan Clergy) men formulated this tragic, true historical period and got away with it for years. Does this sound familiar? History does repeat itself, which needs to be told.”
It’s obvious to me the reader read this book carefully and culled out some of the important motivations for the witch trials. Thank you!
THE TRIANGLE MURDERS 5 stars: “A puzzle within a puzzle. I very much enjoyed Kennedy’s historical fiction with two murders tied 100 years apart to an actual historic event: the Triangle Factory fire of 1911. I am looking forward to reading more books from this author. Her thorough research and engaging story kept me reading faster and faster. An ingenious plot pulled off extraordinarily well.
I love the “puzzle within a puzzle!” I’m also pleased that the reader felt I had done my research.
I urge you to check out your own book reviews from time to time. What did you learn? Share them with us.
Have you had trouble finding a good read lately? I know, I know, most folks say they have so many books waiting to be read that it’s no problem. But, it seems that every sample I pick up these days just hasn’t made it. Jeez, what did we do before we could download samples? We’d stand around in B&N and read the first chapter, I guess.
What makes you put the book down? And how long do you give it? I still have friends that feel obligated to finish a book once they’ve started. Not me. Life’s too short. So I thought I’d try to figure out what makes me give up on a book. This is a very helpful exercise for writers – if you can figure out what you don’t like to read and why, maybe you can avoid writing the same. Let’s see.
The usual writers’ mistakes come to mind. Too many clichés, too many adjectives and adverbs, passive verbs, poor grammar, spelling or punctuation, run on sentences, which gets you all flummoxed. These are a given for dropping a book quickly.
How about tension? If the characters are just moseying along, going shopping, dying their hair, cleaning their kitchen – I’m bored to tears. If they’re walking through a dimly- lit parking garage at midnight, glancing over their shoulder nervously (ach, an adverb!) I’m still bored. It’s been done.
What about characters? There’s such a thing as too much description. I want to picture the character, but I don’t need to know height, weight, hair and eye color and where every beauty mark is. It’s more about their personality, attitude, sense of humor, values. But I like that in short doses, building as I read on. And character names that all begin with the same letter drive me nuts. Jane, Joan, Jim, John, Jasmine, Judy, Jonathan. Aiyiyiyiyi. How can I keep them straight?
Then there’s plot. I’m sick of serial killers, abductions, sexual abuse and missing kids. Surely there are some other interesting plot lines out there. Or, at the very least, a twist on an old one. What? A missing kid who’s a serial killer. Ugh. I’m beginning to agree with agents and publishers who say it’s all been done . . . many times. Are there really no new plot lines out there?
Background description. I really like to get the atmosphere of the work early so I can step into the character’s shoes. But, again, no trite descriptions, please. No white sails against a deep blue sea, please. Also, flashbacks and back fill to give us the history is okay, but only in bits and pieces at a time. Nice if it comes from the character’s head, too, and not from the omniscient observer.
So, who can I suggest as a writer who has the skill, maybe talent is a better word, to carry all this out? A writer I’m usually not disappointed in? Believe it or not, it’s not often a mystery writer. I think one of the best writers I’ve read is Barbara Kingsolver. She has a splendid way with words and makes the English language sing. I highly recommend “The Poisonwood Bible” or “Prodigal Summer.”
If you’re more interested in characters than beautiful phrasing, try “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry (OMG, a Western!) And if you want a dynamite mystery that has all plus oodles of atmosphere, try “The Blackhouse” by Peter May.
I would have made a good literary agent. If I don’t fall in love with the book in the first five (okay ten) pages, it’s a goner. How about you?