We’re Not Making This Up

Miramichi 018Kate Flora: Of course, as fiction writers, we are making some of it up. You all know that. What many readers don’t realize, though, is how, even in midst of creating fictional characters and fictional crimes, we’re constantly doing research to try and make it realistic.

I was thinking about research and reality this morning as I’m preparing to do a workshop for aspiring crime writers next weekend on guns and violence. As a desk-bound suburban woman well into her middle years, I have to work hard at writing realistic police procedurals featuring male cops. Along the way, I’ve taken a citizen’s police academy and a police taught RAD self-defense class. During the part of our police academy where the students were the cops and the cops played bad guys, I got a ton of insight into a rookie’s first days when I tried to do a traffic stop, caught my baton on the door handle, and slammed face first into my own car window in front of my entire class.

img_0995I’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com (described as Disneyland for Crime Writers) started by the wonderful Lee Lofland http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ and wish I could go back every year. I’ve hung around with evidence techs apparently instructed to show me the worst pictures they could, just to see how I’d handle it. At a national writer’s conference, I’ve played at being an evidence tech myself, learning to lift fingerprints off a glass.

I’ve done a lot of riding around in police cars, late at night, talking quietly with officers about what they’re seeing, trying to see the streets through their eyes. Had those fascinating conversations as they read the streets and houses like a roadmap of crime and interpersonal violence. The body in that basement, the murdered girlfriend, the killer who ran down that alley and shot himself right there. I’ve sat through traffic stops where I watched the officer’s wary body language, and later debriefed about the process and why it is so important to see the person’s hands. I’ve gone on a stakeout where I spotted the bad guy. Interviewed a witnesses’ husband and got a detail the police didn’t know.

I see police officers and stories about the police through different eyes now.

And then there are the books. In Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine there was img_0997fascinating entomological evidence, which led me M. Lee Goff’s book, A Fly for the Prosecution. Working on a story about an excavation where bones are found led me to a whole host of books about bones and forensic analysis. Trying to make my cops feel authentic was helped by Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure and Investigation. Trying to make the crime scenes feel authentic led me D. P. Lyle’s Forensics.

Since we can’t make our bad guys obvious or one-dimensional, understanding human psychology becomes surprisingly important. Yes, much of what we write we know from observing the people around us. Deviants, psychopaths, and sociopaths can be found anytime we drive on the highway or stand in a airport line. But books can be helpful in developing them and understanding how bad guys are shaped by their families and childhoods. There’s no better dark reading than any of the books by FBI profiler John Douglas and cowriter Mark Olshaker.

img_0996I even have two criminalistics textbooks, scored at library yard sales, and my own copy of Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation. That last comes with this story: I decided to preview investigation textbooks, and so I borrowed a copy of this through my local library. When the book arrived, the male librarian was reluctant to give it to me. “Are you sure you want to see this?” he said. “It’s pretty graphic.” I said I did and he reluctantly handed it over. It is pretty graphic. It also have fabulous checklists which help make my fictional investigator better at his job.

Our mystery reading audience can be a pretty tough crowd. And we sometimes have to do some tough work to be sure we meet their standards.

 

I’m Not a Panster, I’m a Cooker

 

Miramichi 018.JPGYou all know how it goes. There is a panel of authors sitting before an audience. The presentation is done and now it’s time for Q&A. Once in a while there’s a question that is delightfully quirky or unpredictable, but most times, along with questions about where we get our ideas, someone will want to know whether the writers outline before they write.

The answers will vary. Some of the writers will be serious outliners, the kind who have a detailed, sixty-page outline before they write word one. They are likely the same folks who carefully keep notebooks about each recurring character. Who give their characters birthdays. Who remember that in book two, Uncle Henry and Aunt Rita were feeling estranged from the main character. Who will have carefully noted when their character’s sister burned down the house or shot the neighbor’s dog. They will have a note on the name of that deceased dog so they won’t use it for another dog later in the series. These people, though I long to emulate them, are just too organized.

Others will work from a shorter outline, possibly the one they submitted to a publisher to Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.18.22 PMget another contract. These writers generally know the story they mean to tell, although most will readily admit that the book they end up writing often bears little resemblance to the outline they submitted. Usually, neither the author nor the editors cares when this happens.

Occasionally there are those who admit they start at the end of the book and work backward, making sure that everything that happens leads to that already designed and inevitable ending.

Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who sit down at the keyboard (formerly Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.19.23 PMknown as the typewriter), type Chapter One, and have at it. Many of them will admit that at the end of the writing day or a scene or a chapter, they have no idea what will happen next. For them, much of the joy of writing is in that journey of discovery. It’s in somehow having their creative minds lead them forward into the next chapter. And for pantsers—while they will admit to those moments of despair when they don’t know what to write next and no fluttery little muse is whispering in their ear—this approach generally works.

I am neither an outliner nor a pantser. When I wrote my first mystery—one of the three that reside in a drawer labeled: In the event of my death, burn these—I wrote the pieces I knew. From there, I made an outline of what I needed to write to connect these pieces, and finally, an outline of what needed to still be filled in. I wrote the next in much the same fashion, feeling my way along. Probably following that line that is attributed to many writers including Doctorow that writing is like driving a night. You can only see as far as your headlights but if you keep going, eventually you will get there.

That felt a bit shaky and disorganized, so for the next book, I wrote an outline. Following that outline lasted exactly one chapter. At the end of chapter one, in a book that I had planned to be about real estate and corrupt bankers, a student walks into my protagonist high school teacher’s classroom and says: “You’ve got to help me, Mr. M. I’m in big trouble.” The book became about that trouble.

I’ve lost count, but at book twenty-four or so, I’ve evolved into what I call a cooker. Not meth, thank goodness, but plotting. When an idea comes to me—often only a phrase, or a person in a difficult situation or whatever—I begin the process of wondering. Who is this person? Why is he or she in this situation? What’s in the past that led them here? And once that musing leads to a protagonist and a victim, I wonder about why the victim is dead, what my protagonist’s connection is, and then my mind begins to fill in the details about the crime scene, the clues, the killer, the other suspects, and how it will all be unraveled. I don’t write it down, but I remember it.

During the cooking period, I can get quite lost in my own head. Plot ideas or critiques of what I’ve planned can come flying at me at any time. While driving. In the shower. As I go to sleep and as I’m waking up. During this time, I joke that I should wear a tag like Paddington Bear that reads: Please Look After This Author. Thank You. If Found, Please Return To . . .”

That in-my-head plan can still get knocked awry by a character seizing control—an event that used to scare me but now I embrace. But mostly, I follow the story line I’ve cooked up.

So if I zone out during dinner. If I suddenly get a glazed look in my eyes. If I suddenly whip out my phone and begin typing—please smile indulgently. I’m not being rude. I’m just cooking.

Celebrating a Life

Reposting from my own blog.

The death of a mystery writer: it sounds like the title of a novel (and has been used.) But in this case it is Real Life. It’s a sad but expected part of living, part of knowing lots of people a little over the years as well as having your own close clan. Illness, accidents, and tragedy, well, they exist. Like it or not.

Last week a writer I knew took his own life. A heartbreaking part of the human story. I wasn’t close to Jerry Healy – who wrote under his own name, Jeremiah Healy and a pseudonym Terry Devane – but he was outgoing and friendly and like many newbies he befriended me somewhere along the line, at conventions and conferences. Among other things he’d been an MP in the Army and didn’t mind if you gave his bicep a squeeze. He liked everyone and had a big booming voice and a laugh to match. Once a law professor (always a law professor…?) he could lecture on topics he loved, crime writing, lawyering, and tennis.

In 2006 I was in Europe for an extended time and my husband and I joined the International Crime Writers in Zaragoza, Spain. It was a small group, about 25 or 30 writers plus spouses. We had a great time on that trip, visiting Goya’s childhood home and looking at his etchings, eating traditional Spanish food at a fancy winery, and being feted by the governor in the fabulous capitol building with its trumpeting valets and painted ceilings.

It will surprise no one who knew Jerry that he made a few impromptu speeches during that trip. After awhile the Bulgarian crime writer who bore a striking resemblance to Boris Yeltsin would raise a glass and call out, “Jerry Jerry USA,” with a twinkle in his eye whenever Jerry stood to speak.  Jerry led the IACW for some five years and was known to crime writers from Iceland to Bulgaria, Italy to Cuba. Naturally his last name sometimes became ‘USA!’ He would have liked that, the old Army MP in him, I think.

BluntDarts-small-97x150In celebration of Jerry’s life and work I am giving away a copy of his first book, the one that introduced him and his private eye, John Francis Cuddy, to the world. Of Blunt Darts the New York Times said, “Mr. Healy writes so well that he tends to transcend the cliches…The plotting is impeccable, and everything comes together to make BLUNT DARTS one of the outstanding first mysteries of the year.” Booklist said, “Healy offers a hard-hitting plot full of clever twists and turns. For readers who like the hard-boiled style shorn of any nouvelle flourishes.” 

Jerry will live on through his books. I can’t wait to read them all. Sign up for the mailing list to enter to win BLUNT DARTS. Everyone on the list as of September 7 will be entered.