Creating the Proper Villain

Creating the Proper Villain

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.

A Glimpse Into the Art World

A Glimpse Into the Art World

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.

 

An Insane Asylum Can Make You Crazy

An Insane Asylum Can Make You Crazy

Forgive the repeat of this blog but I wanted to announce that my new mystery, Hart of Madness, is now available in paperback and e-book.  Please check this website.

Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,

off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.

It has been a public mass burial ground,

a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.

The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:

a Union Civil War prison camp,

a tuberculosis sanatorium,

a boys’ reformatory and . . .

a woman’s lunatic asylum.

1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered.  She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.

The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx.  The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s.  Over a million lost souls are buried there.

Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed.  Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.

Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating.  If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.

2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable.  It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.

Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task.  Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants.  Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.

 

 

 

Learning From Our Mistakes . . . Or Not

Learning From Our Mistakes . . . Or Not

When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.

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But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.

For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted.  It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day.  For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle.  https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america

Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them. 

“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted.  You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.

Fast forward to recent times.  On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”

A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Why?  Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits.  One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.

Yikes. What am I missing here?  With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right?  Why must we wait for  a disaster to occur before we decide to act?

There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes

We can do better. We must do better.

Insane Asylums Can Make You Crazy

Insane Asylums Can Make You Crazy

Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and . . .
a woman’s lunatic asylum.

1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered. She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.

The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s. Over a million lost souls are buried there.

Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed. Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.

Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating. If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.

2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable. It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.

Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task. Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants. Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.

 

Hart of Madness. Now available in paperback and e-book. Check on this website.

Are You the Best Editor for Your Work?

Are You the Best Editor for Your Work?

Should You Hire a Pro?

A writer friend asked me whether it was really a good idea to pay a professional editor to read her manuscript.  My immediate response was yes, but the question made me pause and reflect on my personal experiences.

I have had all six of my novels (number six coming this summer!) edited by pros.  Here are my thoughts.

There is huge value to editors who “copy” edit, that is, they read for spelling, grammar, syntax, etc.  You always miss something: a comma where it doesn’t belong, the incorrect use of a semicolon.  In terms of the broader picture: the plot, characters, structure, tension, conflict, on and on, the pro can be very helpful. . . or not.

In The Triangle Murders, the professional editor I hired was so intrigued with the historic story that her suggestions would have made me totally change the book.  It would have become a historic mystery rather than a historic mystery that is solved today with modern technology.  She had her own vision for the book.  But who was writing this?

The editor I hired for my Civil War book, however, was extremely helpful.  He gave me an idea for a dynamite ending that I hadn’t even considered.  It totally changed the story for the better.

Before you consider hiring a pro, however, do your own self-editing.  Believe it or not, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing before it gets the going-over by someone else.  Some suggestions:

Edit in small sections at a time.  If possible, reread the section before and then edit the current 5 to 10 pages.

Also, read aloud (or to your dog or cat.)  I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.  You’d be surprised what you hear that you didn’t think you wrote.  Dialogue may sound stilted, tension weak, setting inappropriate.  Often I will come away from my reading out loud thinking, ugh, did I write that?

Some things to look for when you’re self-editing:

  1. Do you want to turn the page?
  2. Did you stumble over awkward phrases or clunky words when you read aloud?
  3. Were you confused by your own plot twists?
  4. Did punctuation mess up your reading?
  5. Were your characters boring, too flawed (yes, that’s possible) or totally unbelievable (unless you write Bourne thrillers)?
  6. Were there plot inconsistencies ie: a character appeared after she was murdered?
  7. Were there setting inconsistencies? It was hot as Hades one day, snowing the next?
  8. Did you get your facts right? Very important if you want authenticity.

You can be your own best editor.  But, just to be sure — reread, rewrite, read aloud.  And again x 3.

Now hire a professional for the final read.

Your thoughts welcome.