How Do You Like Your Mysteries?

How Do You Like Your Mysteries?

Warm and cozy or gritty and dark?

In one of my blogs I discussed 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.

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.


A Tragic Legacy of War

A Tragic Legacy of War

The transfer of works of art from vanquished to victor is as old as warfare itself.” 

                                                            . . . Lynn Nicolas, author of Rape of Europa

I open with this quote because it so aptly describes the events that began in the art world long before the outbreak of the second World War.  Hitler’s dream of a pure Germanic Empire included works of art and he determinedly set about purging those pieces he considered unsuitable.

“Entartete Kunst,” German for degenerate art

What was unsuitable?  Works that were “unfinished” or abstract, that did not depict reality.  Vasily Kandinsky.  Works by Jews. Camille Pisarro.  Works by leftists.  George Grosz.  Degenerate art they were called and exhibitions of them were set up to show the German people what not to like and admire.  Shows like “Entartete Kunst” in Munich in 1937 drew thousands.

Hermann Goering was one of the first in Hitler’s regime to recognize the commercial value of some of these works of art and amassed thousands of works for his own personal collection.   His “agent” took Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” purged from a museum in Frankfurt, to sell in Holland.  The painting eventually found its way to New York and was sold for $82.5 million.

Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi ideologue, set up the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, to systematically collect – confiscate or steal, to be more precise – works of art and artifacts from state museums, citizens and Jews, in particular.  Millions of pieces.

As the war came to an end, the Allies closed in.  With them were a handful of art-specialists called “monument men.”  Their job was to locate and salvage these precious works of art from Germany, Italy and France.  Every day these officers would find thousands of pieces on the verge of destruction.  They saved what they could; still many disappeared through looting.

The fate of thousands of objects is still unknown, even today.  One of those precious pieces is the subject of my book, Deadly Provenance.  It is Van Gogh’s painting, “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders,” which vanished in 1944.  Was it destroyed or is it hidden in someone’s secret art collection?  In someone’s garage waiting for a sale, perhaps?  Will it ever surface to please the world once more?

Can science and technology assist in authenticating the painting if ever it is found?  And if so, will it be restored to its rightful owner?  Provenance will tell.

Transforming an Idea Into a Novel

Transforming an Idea Into a Novel

I am about to embark on my seventh novel.  (Five books are currently in the marketplace, number six has been entered in the Malice Domestic competition.)

As you may know, I write historical mysteries that are solved today with modern science (had to combine my science museum background with my love of history!)  I’ve been often asked how I choose the topics for my book and the simple answer is this.  I select a time period and a real event in history to construct a mystery around.  In earlier books, I’ve used the Civil War, the Salem witch trials, the Nazi confiscation of art, and the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911, as backdrops.

The modern story lines utilize current technology to resolve the ancient crimes: digital photography, arson forensics, scientific techniques for art authentication, and questioned document analysis, are examples.

For my next mystery, I take the reader back to the Spanish Inquisition, a turbulent time in world history, where heretics were forced to convert to Christianity or exiled from Spain and Portugal.

My main character will be Frank Mead, a New York City homicide detective who has appeared in each of my books.  He will have a new romantic interest, Rachel Bejarano, a research librarian at the NYC Public Library, who is on a quest to track down a mysterious necklace that is left to her by her Sephardic ancestors. (Rachel appears briefly in book six, Hart of Madness.)  Together they trace her ancestors to a small town in Spain (Cordoba, perhaps?) and the ancient Jewish quarter.

However, murder and mayhem stalks them every step of the way, from Madrid, where they start their investigation, to the glorious palace, Alhambra, in Granada. 

I’m sure you are chuckling as you read this, thinking, “Ahh, the writer gets to take a trip to Spain.”  Indeed.  Ain’t it grand?

Now the work begins:

Create the historic and modern story lines.

Draw the character sketches.

Research, research, research the locations, the history, the authentic characters of the time, the language, the food, the clothing, et al of 15th Century Spain.

For me, this is the most exciting time in the writing process: molding the essence of an idea into a rich and dramatic story. Writers, you know exactly what I mean.

I welcome ideas and thoughts about your process.

Jump-Start That Outline

Jump-Start That 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Hart of Madness

Hart of Madness

Here is a teaser for my next book, expected to premiere next summer.

New York City, 1902.  Imagine what it would be like to be nineteen years old, accused of killing your family, and committed to a lunatic asylum in the middle of a colossal potter’s field for the rest of your life?  That’s the fate of Ruby Hunt in my next book, Hart of Madness

The book opens with:

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 “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.

Publication details as they unfold.


Visualize That Scene

Visualize That Scene

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 forced her brain to prepare for those turns and bumps 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 can be very useful in writing.  Close your eyes.  Picture the scene you’re about to compose.  A family about to sit down for dinner.  What does it look like?  How many people are there, who are they?  Two adults, two children.  What are the ages, sex, and ethnicity of the individuals?  What are they wearing?  What is the room like?  Who sits where?

Sounds totally boring.  But the way you set the scene visually, has a huge impact on your story.  Close your eyes again.  You’re in a kitchen, white crooked cabinets, dirty fingerprints on the doors, dishes in the sink.  No windows.  Floor is black and white tiles, heavily scuffed and greasy. The table has no cloth, just bare, scratched wood.  Chairs do not match.  Refrigerator has one child’s drawing stuck on it with magnet.

The adults are about forty, the man is black, the woman white.  Mom is wearing tank top, shorts.  Dad is in a spotty tee and jeans.  The kids are a boy, nine and a girl, twelve, both with latte skin.  The girl is wearing torn jeans, t-shirt falling off one shoulder and her face is in a perpetual sneer.  The boy is chubby and his forehead and upper lip are sweaty.  On the table is a platter of suspicious looking meat, kind of pink and gray.  Rap music pounds in the background.  Both parents and daughter text and surf on their smart phones.

No one seems to be interested in eating except the boy.  He stabs at the meat and brings a piece to his plate.  His nose curls up and he pushes plate aside, leaves the room.  A huge gray cat jumps onto his chair, then onto the table.  He begins licking the piece of meat on the boy’s plate.  No one shoos him away.

If you painted this family portrait, you already had a definite image in mind.  As a reader, however, you provided us with copious amounts of useful information.  We know it’s warm, maybe it’s the summer in the south.  We know quite a bit about the parents and the kids, in terms of attitudes and interests.  We know something about their home life (at least at the dinner table.)  We know a lot about their attitudes, toward themselves and each other.  We see the interest they show their smart phones but the lack of interest, respect and caring for each other.

We also know the food was spoiled, but the cat didn’t mind.  And I could picture the house (more likely apartment), the heat, the jarring sound of rap music, and the sad plight of the boy.

Visualization is more than just “description.”  It’s not just a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table.  It’s not just a blond wearing high heels and red lipstick or a wet dog shaking after his bath.  It’s about emotions, attitudes, the idiosyncrasies of the characters.

When my cop, Mead is feeling the acid rise into his throat, he doesn’t complain about it.  He just pops a few Tums.  When my character, Maggie, is anxious, she doesn’t whine.  She paces the room, throws her arms around, babbles a mile a minute.

Your character might chew her nails to the quick and always be embarrassed about them.  Or maybe she throws mugs against the wall (very satisfying as long as they’re not too expensive to replace.)

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.