Till now, Judith Flanders has confined herself solely to nonfiction as one of the foremost social historians of the Victorian era and the best-selling author of The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City. With her debut crime novel, Flanders takes on the cutthroat publishing industry and spices it up with a bit of that Victorian-style macabre.
Chosen by librarians for the February 2015 Library Reads list, A Murder of Magpies is a darkly funny romp that takes readers between London and Paris in pursuit of a potentially libelous manuscript.
But how did Flanders make the leap from Victorian crime to contemporary crime fiction? As she reveals in a guest blog post, it's just more fun. (And now we know never to get on Flanders' bad side . . .)
Fiction has some definite advantages over nonfiction. I’ve been writing nonfiction for nearly 20 years now, specializing in Victorian Britain. I truly can’t complain: It’s a great job. As with every job, though, there are some days that are just a slog. At one point I was writing about a fire along the river Thames in 1861, and I wanted to incorporate an eyewitness’ description of seeing the fire from a train. To do that, I needed to say where his train was heading. It took me nearly a week in the library to find that out. Even though it was one of those boring little details that nobody reading my book would care about, still, I had to get it right.
If I had been writing a novel, I grumped to myself, I could have just made it up. And then I bumped into an ex-colleague in the library, someone I’d worked with years before. And I remembered how much I disliked her. (The feeling, I believe, is mutual.) So, to relieve the boredom of researching trains, I began to imagine ways of killing her. From making up train stations, to making up murder methods, I moved on to just making things up.
And before I knew it, I’d started to write a crime novel. Sam Clair is an editor in a publishing house. I worked in publishing for 17 years, and publishing is full of people that belong in a novel. The 20-something editor who thinks he knows everything? Check. The last remaining Goth in Britain, who loves commercial women’s fiction? Double-check. And of course then there’s the general murder and mayhem. After all, there isn’t an author alive who hasn’t wanted to murder her editor, and vice-versa.
With my nonfiction hat on, I wrote a book on 19th-century murder and how real-life crimes were used for entertainment purposes: Where today we have films about the Boston strangler or whatever, they had plays and novels and even puppet shows. What struck me was that real-life murder was, on the whole, not very interesting. Thug A hits Thug B over the head, fighting over a few pounds. Thug B dies. That was the pattern, over and over.
Crime was dull. Crime fiction, however, now that was fabulous. From Dickens to Dracula, authors everywhere found themselves invigorated by these very ordinary, very ugly events. They took the dull stuff—Thug A, a railway station, a fire—and turned it into magic.
Publishing can be dull, too. Like a lot of glamorous jobs, on a day-to-day level it’s often just paperwork: admin and schedules and budgets. But if you make things up, you can liberate the routine, turn it into magic, too.
So I decided that I’d give myself a break from researching train stations, or even Thugs A and B. Instead I would take the ridiculousness that is publishing, and the magic that is making things up, and see what happened.
Thank you so much, Judith! Readers, A Murder of Magpies goes on sale tomorrow!
Judith Flanders author photo by Clive Barda.
Colby Marshall is a writer by day and a ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, as well as a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. She kicks off her new FBI profiler series, starring Dr. Jenna Ramey, with Color Blind. The FBI has detained a mass murderer, but his partner is still on the loose, so Jenna has been called in to put a stop to any future murders.
Marshall and her heroine share a rather unusual trait—they both have synesthesia, a neurological condition that triggers color associations with people, places and things. We wanted to know—and apparently, everbody Marshall meets wants to know, too—how much of her own experiences contributed to Color Blind. Her answer may surprise you.
As an author, I won’t deny that I love answering questions, even if only so for a minute I can pretend I’m the latest runaway best-selling author letting loose in an exclusive interview for People magazine. Some questions readers ask surprise me. Others come up over and over again.
And while frequent-flier questions aren’t always the same types of things I’d ask an author—I’d rather hear what earned her the most time-outs as a kid than where her ideas come from (mostly because I’m pretty sure we all snag ideas the same way, from that guy on the corner selling them out of his van)—I guess I can understand the curiosity of a reader, a bookstore patron . . . or a stranger I’ve cornered at a party who I’m pretending is my number one fan. If you don’t enjoy or make a bad habit out of telling stories, I guess the details surrounding how we think up imaginary people, make them have sex and then kill them could be interesting, whether in a fascinated way or a the-more-you-know-the-better-you-can-hide-from-the-lunatics way.
Yet, one question used to surprise me every time, no matter how often it cropped up. It’s been put to me by the neighbor dying to sneak a gossip-gathering peak inside my garage door, by the glove-snapping gynecologist only talking to distract me from the forthcoming, oh-so-cold evil, by my mother’s hairdresser in between not-so-subtle hints that I could use a few highlights, and by my devious nemesis of a mailman, who I’m convinced starred in at least one Nightmare on Elm Street sequel before he was featured on "America’s Most Wanted" when I was 8. But I digress . . .
That two-part question asked at every family reunion and inside every white-walled church fellowship hall is: Do I write about myself, and do I get my characters from those who fill real-life roles in the crazy one-woman show that is my life?
Until recently, this question routinely set off a seemingly pre-programmed string of thoughts through my head. Is this a more common practice than I realized? Could all of my favorite authors who have entertained and wowed me with their ability to weave mesmerizing fiction (read: big fat lies) out of nothingness be, in reality, regurgitating personas they see every day onto their books’ pages? Are they using their manuscripts like public journals, only ones they’re willing to turn toward the people close to them to serve as honest-but-sort-of-fictionalized-even-if-most-of-it’s-true mirrors?
My second thought always hit like clockwork: If all authors do this, then damn. After the things Thomas Harris has seen, he’s bound to be a vegetarian by now. And I bet R.L. Stine wishes his parents would’ve moved him to a town where he could’ve taken piano lessons from a teacher without a creepy hand fetish . . . and maybe lived on a cul-de-sac with fewer shadowy homeless men carrying cursed cameras.
But with my newest book, I’ve gained some perspective. A few years ago, I found myself writing about an FBI forensic psychiatrist—something I, a 5’1”, indoor, glitter-heel-wearing blonde girl, am not—and giving her a little bit of something I am. I gave her a brain quirk. Made her a graphemeàcolor synesthete. A neurological phenomenon that causes a person to associate colors with everything from letters to days of the week and even people and emotions, graphemeàcolor synesthesia doesn’t have many practical uses in my own life, unless you count the time I filled awkward silences at my spouse’s company Christmas party by entertaining acquaintances with the colors my brain links to two particularly unpopular high school foreign language teachers with whom everyone in the group happened to share an F-filled history. But for Jenna, it’s useful. It can’t do her job for her—a flying-off-buildings kind of superpower, it ain’t (sadly)—but the subtle flashes of color in her head can illuminate important details and fine-tune theories as she sifts through clues she already has.
On paper, Dr. Jenna Ramey does lots of things I don’t: I like movies with explosions, but she actually shoots at bad guys. I research abnormal pathologies for stories, but she’s a trained expert at getting inside the minds of those relevant to her case. I dream of reaching the cereal box on the top shelf; she stores dishes on all three levels in her kitchen cabinets. But she and I are alike in a big way that helps her life and career run smoother. That little bit of me I used from real-life guarantees she—and I—can save fictional lives in a way no other FBI agent can. At least, none in Jenna’s world.
Maybe in the past I’ve taken the idea of authors pulling personas from their Rolodexes too literally. (Do you know anybody who still owns a Rolodex?) After all, your main character’s partner-in-crime doesn’t have to be an exact replica of your own best pal right down to her neverending coffee mug collection and penchant for breaking the news that the joke you thought was so hilarious five minutes ago only made you laugh because one Fuzzy Navel was affecting you way more than a single wine cooler ought to be. If an author does her job, a character trait can be inspired by someone’s quirks or killer fashion sense and still shape an entirely imagined character. That way, the front-of-the-book disclaimer that says any resemblance of the story’s characters to real-life people is unintentional can hold stronger legal teeth than semantics and a prayer.
Heck, an author can even pay homage to a pal if he likes. As long as he doesn’t blab about his bud’s embarrassing fourth nipple removal (while changing only one letter of her first name), coloring stories with distinctive habits and idiosyncrasies can be just what a book character needs to transform her from so flat she might as well be a paper doll to someone . . . well, someone readers might want to meet. Maybe even hang out with for a while.
Next time I run into another author, I think I’ll ask if he uses people in his real life in his writing. Who knows? I might find out something plucked from reality is that thing I love most about a favorite character.
Thanks, Colby! Readers, Color Blind is out today.
Miranda James is the pseudonym for Dean James, a seventh-generation Mississippian who now lives in Texas and is the author of the best-selling Cat in the Stacks mysteries.
James' new Southern Ladies series introduces the "sassy mouths and big hearts" of two ladies we won't soon forget. And as James shares in a guest post, these women aren't as fictional as you might expect.
Every small Southern town has them—those indomitable women who run all kinds of organizations, from garden and bridge clubs to charitable agencies. Often they come from the town’s oldest families, generation after generation of club women who oil the wheels of the social engine. These were exactly the women I needed when I was working on Out of Circulation, the fourth book in my Cat in the Stacks series.
The story revolved around fund-raising efforts for the local public library—in this case, the fictional Athena (Mississippi) Public Library. I needed strong characters for the Friends of the Library Board of Directors, and I counted on disagreements among the members. Has there ever been a committee when members didn’t butt heads over even the most minute of details? Perfect starting point for conflict in a murder mystery, I thought.
In the spring of 2011 I attended the first-ever Daddy’s Girls Weekend, an event put together by my friend and fellow writer, Carolyn Haines, author of the Sarah Booth Delaney series. There I met two sisters, An’gel Ducote Molpus and Dickce Ducote Little, who inspired me to create their fictional counterparts, Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce Ducote.
The fictional sisters are several decades older, unmarried and childless, yet their characters owe much to their real-life inspirations. The Ducote sisters are the true grandes dames of Athena society—intelligent, hard-working and intolerant of pretention and snobbery. The conflict between them and the character of Vera Cassity was an essential element of the story, and I had great fun with the scenes involving these characters.
Not long after I finished Out of Circulation, I was working on ideas for a second series, one that would feature two older women characters. After discussion with my agent and my editor, we settled on making the Ducote sisters the main characters. I loved them, my editor loved them, and evidently so did my readers. Thus was the new series born.
The first book in the Southern Ladies mysteries, Bless Her Dead Little Heart, is officially out on October 7. The Ducote sisters are on their own as amateur detectives, because Charlie Harris and his family are in France on vacation. They do have the assistance of Diesel, the Maine Coon cat, who makes a cameo appearance in the book. An old sorority sister, Rosabelle Sultan, turns up on the sisters’ doorstep one August afternoon and claims that someone in her family is trying to murder her. Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce know that Rosabelle loves being the center of attention, but this sounds a bit over-the-top even for this self-absorbed socialite. When Rosabelle’s family members follow her to Athena, however, the sisters quickly discover that one of them does have murder in mind.
I had great fun writing this book, letting the sisters have their way. I hope readers will have fun, too, getting to know Miss An’gel and Miss Dickce.
Thanks, Miranda/Dean! Readers, Bless Her Dead Little Heart is out now!
Author photo credit Kathryn Krause.
Marriage is hard enough, but you're adding a whole new level of trouble when you and your spouse share the same hopes, dreams—and career avenues. David Bajo, author of the new medical thriller Mercy 6 and husband to novelist Elise Blackwell, knows all about that. But it's not like he's keeping score or anything.
You have no idea how hard it is to pretend you are the second best writer in the house. I should have married a doctor. That way I could have spent my late mornings indulging in biscotti and cigarettes while composing brilliant novels in the inner sanctum of my study. I could have taken long afternoon walks to clear my mind’s canvas. But no, 25 years ago I made that great MFA workshop mistake and married another writer.
For the first eight years, we lived in a Victorian farmhouse and grew rare subtropical fruits to supplement our income. We gardened, using the Seed Savers Exchange to grow endangered vegetables and grains. She somehow translated this into an idea for a novel. Right? Who wouldn’t want to read about people who desperately try to save seeds. I said “we” gardened. But I was the one slipping pollen filters fashioned from pantyhose over heirloom okra flowers—while she took notes and corresponded with other seed savers. I was the one who made like a bee every afternoon at four when the cherimoya blossoms began to morph from female to male, using a paint brush to swipe and insert pollen—while she composed elegant sentences (that I would help her revise once my fingers stopped cramping).
Okay, so she published her novel first, a well-received and timeless piece of work about starving Russian scientists who saved seeds. It’s built up a nice following over the years. The Decemberists wrote a song about it. I’m not even in the acknowledgments. Look, I would have published first if I hadn’t been so busy trying to control the sex lives of cherimoyas and okras. And once you fall one novel behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up.
When event organizers find out about us—and factor in the cost of one accommodation instead of two—they think it’s cute. Married novelists. I bet we can make them squirm and fight and dish during the Q&A. We got invited to a festival in Ireland. I’m pretty sure it was my book that first caught their eye, but once they got a look at her dark hair and pale beauty, they put her photo on the flyer and her name first. I understand. Marketing is a shallow pool.
Speaking of shallow pools, we did a panel in Los Angeles. We sat on opposite ends. I think we were fighting over some bookfest swag, you know, like who gets the Pynchon coffee mug and who gets the Philip K. Dick glow sticks. The audience had no idea we were together, but as the Q&A progressed, they started to smell the scintillating ozone of domestic tension, the battle for literary number one. It became a game and the ignored panelists in between us were pissed. I fielded one question, she fielded the next. Why do you keep pointing at her? Why does she say your name like that? Which one of you two got the biggest advance? Who got the most foreign deals? Did any cool bands record a song about your novel? I let her win because I knew that would look best and sell the most stock.
Mercy 6 keeps me one novel behind. The first time she knew anything about it was when I read from the first draft during a reading series held in a bar. “I didn’t know you were writing a medical thriller,” she said to me, ready to take the stage after I had wowed the room. “Can you fetch me another Jameson’s? The show’s about to start.”
Thanks, David! Readers, Mercy 6 is out now!
Loyal fans of best-selling author Linwood Barclay will remember the Archer family from No Time for Goodbye (2007). Barclay's new novel, No Safe House, picks up seven years later. Once again, seemingly idyllic neighborhoods hold dark secrets, and the murder of two elderly locals has everyone on edge. The Archers are still recovering—and quite frankly not doing a great job of it. Their little family unit threatens to fall apart, and they soon once again find themselves fighting for their lives.
Barclay certainly has his finger on what makes for a fast-paced, intense tale of suspense and secrets. We wanted to know what books shaped him as a writer.
The Hardy Boys opened the door, but it was Lew Archer who really invited me in.
The first books I ever read—not counting The Cat in the Hat, which is a classic, but not really what we’re talking about here—were crime novels.
The first honest-to-God hardcover crime novel I owned was a Hardy Boy book. It was The Great Airport Mystery, the ninth adventure starring brothers Frank and Joe Hardy. There were bad guys. There was action. There was a mystery to be solved.
I was hooked. I read as many Hardy Boys novels as I could get my hands on. The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, What Happened at Midnight.
Somewhere around the fifth or sixth grade, I discovered Agatha Christie. The plots became more intricate, more inventive. I devoured the classics. The A.B.C. Murders, Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None.
About a year after that, I stumbled upon the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, and loved those even more. The plots were every bit as good as Christie’s, but there was something more. There was humor. Crackling dialogue. As memorable a character as crime fiction has ever had: Nero Wolfe himself. (Apologies to Sherlock Holmes fans. Yes, he’s probably the single most memorable crime solver, but amazingly, at this point in my mystery education, I hadn’t yet discovered him.)
Stout’s books were terrific, and, oh joy, there were so many of them. By the time I’d read all of them, I was about 14 or 15, and looking for something new.
I found it on the squeaky, spinning paperback rack at the IGA grocery store in Bobcaygeon, Ontario. It was the Bantam edition of The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald, and what caught my eye was the quote at the top of the cover: “The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” (That was from William Goldman’s review in The New York Times, and a few short years later I would be blown away by his novel Marathon Man, which remains one of my favorite thrillers ever.)
No one seems to know whether blurbs work or not, but that one worked on me. I bought that book and was completely drawn in by the detective work of one Lew Archer. I followed him through this case and all the others available at that time, including The Galton Case, The Doomsters, The Zebra-Striped Hearse and, one of the best crime novels of all time, The Chill.
These were the books that changed me. These books showed me how an author could take the conventions of the mystery novel and use them to do more than figure out how someone was murdered in a locked room. Through Archer, Macdonald shined a light on America’s darkness. He explored family dysfunction, alienated and troubled youth, the corruption of wealth and, in later novels, the destruction of our environment.
Macdonald may not have been the first to show the world that a mystery could be a novel, that it could be literature, but he was the first to show me. No writer had a greater impact on me up to that time, nor has any writer since.
Thanks, Linwood! Readers, No Safe House is on sale August 5.
Mystery fans: Was there a mystery you read at an early age that you'll never forget?
Author photo credit Bill Taylor.
Ravenous mystery readers know that crime isn't limited to big cities. It's not even limited to Amish farms, charming British villages or too-perfect suburbs. Revenge and murder even finds its way to paradise, such as in Mark Troy's new mystery, The Splintered Paddle. In a guest blog post, Troy shares his insight into the dark side of Hawaii.
Where do most fictional private eyes hang their fedoras? That’s easy: New York City, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Far down on the list is Honolulu.
You can name the Honolulu private eye series on one hand. Television gave us Tracey Steele and Tom Lopaka in "Hawaiian Eye," and Thomas Magnum in "Magnum, P.I." The list of Hawaiian private eye novel series begins and ends with Charles Kneif’s John Caine. Some mainland-based eyes, such as Sharon McCone and Adrian Monk, have had adventures in the islands, but none have stayed. The most famous Hawaiian crime fighters are police detectives Charlie Chan and Steve McGarrett (both incarnations), but, even with their inclusion, the list is a short one. One gets the sense that there just isn’t much crime in the islands.
In the minds of most people, Hawaii is a paradise of golden sands, sparkling waters, waving palm trees and gyrating hula girls. Where are the mean streets? They are everywhere, but, like the changes in seasons, they are easily missed until you have spent time there.
Although I love Hawaii, its beaches and mountains, what I love most are its people and culture. By culture, I don’t mean hula dances and ukuleles, but the circumstances of history and geography from which the spirit of the people is formed.
One of the tenets of Hawaiian culture is a long tradition of resisting mistreatment of its citizens and of taking care of the weak and helpless. That tenet is stated in the Law of the Splintered Paddle—Kānāwai Māmalahoe in Hawaiian. The law was the first edict promulgated by Kamehameha I after uniting the islands.
The Law of the Splintered Paddle is basically understood to mean that citizens have a right to defend themselves against mistreatment by the government and that the weaker members of society can expect protection from the more powerful members. The state constitution makes mention of the law and the Honolulu Police badge bears an image of crossed canoe paddles in reference to the law.
Ava Rome, the private eye in my stories, is an outsider. She is not Hawaiian by birth or upbringing, so she brings an outsider's perspective to the culture. In that, she is like many other private eyes. What sets her apart from other private eyes is her mission. Ava believes in the Law of the Splintered Paddle. She believes in protecting the defenseless. She has adopted this basic tenet of Hawaiian culture and made it her mission in life. She doesn't require innocence to take on a client, only defenselessness.
Ava's belief in the Law of the Splintered Paddle is fueled by a burden of guilt over her failure, as a teenager, to protect her brother from bullying. She is determined not to fail anyone else. She takes on a prostitute who is being harassed by a high-ranking police officer and a troubled teenager who has fallen prey to her own bad decisions and to the predations of a marijuana grower. Ava's greatest challenge, however, arrives in the form of an ex-con, whom she had arrested when she was an MP. He is out. He is seeking revenge, and he harbors a secret from her past.
The Splintered Paddle is the story of a private eye, Ava Rome, and her personal foray down the mean streets of Hawaii to protect the defenseless in the dark side of paradise tourists seldom see.
Thanks, Mark! Readers, The Splintered Paddle is now available.
With The Catch, readers find themselves hanging on for dear life as Vanessa Michael Munroe—"the cleverest, fightingest and all-around baddest heroines in contemporary suspense fiction"—takes us to Djibouti for her newest no-holds-barred adventure. Munroe is the unforgettable brainchild of author Taylor Stevens, who has a fascinating backstory of her own: She was born in New York state and into the Children of God, raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Stevens was in her 20s when she broke free, and she now lives in Texas.
It's easy to wonder how much of the inspiration for Munroe came from Stevens' own life. As it turns out, that seems to be the question on everyone's mind. Stevens responds, once and for all:
Whenever I walk into an event—be it a book signing, Q&A or author’s talk—it’s pretty easy to spot the participants who’ve read my biography and at least one book, but haven’t yet interacted with me online or in person. It’s easy because they’re the ones wearing the guarded, concerned looks, subtly checking me out for signs of sanity, as if at worst I might be right on the edge of snapping and at best might need some soothing and comfort.
I suppose, really, this can’t be helped. Unusual characters populate my books, and I’ve led an unusual life. This has resulted in the most frequently asked question: "How much of Vanessa Michael Munroe is based on you?"
At the beginning, this conflation between character and author baffled me. Vanessa Michael Munroe is a hyperpolyglot (someone who speaks more than 12 languages), born and raised in equatorial Africa. She took up with gunrunners at the tender age of 14 and carries the mental and physical scars of a violent adolescence. To plagiarize myself, “the knife became her way to salvation and the missionary’s daughter, made to traverse the valley of the shadow of death, walked out the other side an apex predator.” She’s a chameleon, a hunter, an adrenaline junkie, self-contained, indifferent and shut off from the world—except when she’s not.
Oh that I was so brutally badass. Can you imagine the results I’d get at PTA and HOA meetings? Unfortunately, Munroe and I are nothing alike. Well, except for a hijacked childhood—we do both have wacky backgrounds. Mine had me born and raised in an apocalyptic religious cult, growing up as child labor in cult communes, spending far too much time out begging in the cold, and having my education stopped completely when I was 12.
But I’d made peace with all that long before turning to fiction. I started writing as a way to bring to life a small, paranoid, corrupt country off Africa’s west coast where’d lived for a little over two years. The thought of drawing on my childhood and adolescence for that first tale never even crossed my mind, and if it had, we would have had completely different characters—and probably not very good ones. I’m far too happy and enamored with life to belong in these intense, dark stories. I cry when I see sunsets and hear moving music, smile at everyone, am a total fraidy cat, and am overly empathetic to the point that my heart bleeds out onto my sleeve, which is super embarrassing. In perfect irony, I also hate suspense and violence—can neither watch it on screen nor read it in books—and yet that’s what I write.
Because I’m so opposite the characters that populate these stories, and because Munroe was drawn completely from imagination and snippets of other fictional characters (Jason Bourne and Lara Croft), I couldn’t understand at first how anyone could think she represented a real-life person, much less me. But then it got worse. People I’d never met used my fiction as a way to psychoanalyze the author, going on about my tormented psyche, insisting I was obsessed with violence against women, as if they knew me, as if assuming something about me magically made it true. Offended and insulted, I wondered if they also thought Carrie was based off Stephen King.
Once my skin thickened up a bit, once I realized how completely cool the character and author fusion was, I was able to embrace these assumptions for what they were: the ultimate compliment—proof of good storytelling—because the only way fantasy and reality can blend into such earnest beliefs is if the fiction feels real enough for the reader to assume that it had to have been drawn from real life, somehow.
These days I wear the conflation like a badge of honor, and when people ask me how much of Munroe is based on me, I look them dead in the eye and say, “all of it.”
Taylor Stevens is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of The Informationist, The Innocent and The Doll. Featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe, the series has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. The Informationist has been optioned for film by James Cameron's production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. Her latest novel, The Catch, will be published by Crown on July 15, 2014.
Author photo credit Alyssa Skyes.
John Verdon's brilliant sleuth, NYPD detective Dave Gurney, returns in his fourth adventure, Peter Pan Must Die. Gurney really just wants to live a simple life in the country, but he is dragged back into the crime world when a wealthy real estate developer is shot and the unfaithful wife is convicted of murder. But things don't line up, and Gurney finds himself up against a uniquely sinister villain.
Gurney can piece together a puzzle like no one else in the sleuthing biz. Verdon gives us a peek into his standout character:
Somewhere along the way in my literary education I managed to absorb the simple notion that drama is about conflict. Without conflict there is no dramatic development, no story, no tension—nothing at stake to hold our interest.
There are reasons for this. We have been hardwired by the survival imperatives of evolution to pay close attention to conflict in all its forms, from simple disagreement to outright violence. Conflict attracts our attention, and we want to see what happens next—how it escalates, how it’s resolved.
So if I had one overriding priority in mind when I began writing Think of a Number, the first novel in the Dave Gurney series of mystery-thrillers, it was the need for conflict—in every scene, on every page, even with only one person present. (That last one might sound odd at first, but I’ll come back to it.)
Since the story idea for Think of a Number began with a character who was in an emotional state of near-breakdown over a series of increasingly threatening letters, I wanted to involve him with a detective who was supremely rational. (Conflict comes in many flavors, including contrast between two perceptions of a situation.) That basic storytelling need gave rise to the core personality trait of Dave Gurney, leading some reviewers to compare him to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
But that was just the starting point for the Gurney character. I wanted him to be married, because I believed that would give me opportunities to make him truly three-dimensional and—you guessed it—inject other interesting conflicts into his life.
Gurney’s first approach to every situation is analytical. He’s always thinking, asking why and how about whatever he observes. He’s obsessed with figuring things out. So I gave him a wife who’s just the opposite—who loves the experience of living, the immediate beauty of nature, the fascinating aspects of the thing in front of her. She’s every bit as smart as he is and often more acutely perceptive, but her way of seeing the world always contrasts with his. I’m especially intrigued by the role of personality differences in a close relationship like this, since it’s such a fertile ground for exploring the way persistent disagreements play out in our lives, as well as that ultimate tension between love and selfishness.
I mentioned earlier that I try to put conflict into every scene, even when only one character is present. It’s really easier than it sounds, when you consider all the forms of collision and frustration in our lives—for example, with inanimate objects. I recall a detective whose cigarette lighter never works, whose umbrella never opens, whose cell phone battery is always dead at the very moment that he must make a call. And, of course, a man like Dave Gurney faces an ongoing struggle every day with his own durable demons.
Conflict. It defines character and propels narratives. It’s what’s much of life and all great stories are about.
Thanks, John! Readers, Peter Pan Must Die is now available.
California native Karen Keskinen follows up her 2012 debut mystery, Blood Orange, with a new adventure for private investigator Jaymie Zarlin. In Black Current, the body of a local teen is found in a tank at the Santa Barbara Aquarium. It's ruled a suicide, but the girl's parents hire Jaymie to prove otherwise.
In a guest blog post for Private Eye July, Keskinen shares what it's like to be the featured author at book club meetings. It's no small job, that's for sure:
I’ve never been a chakra-and-crystals kind of girl. Sometimes I think a New Age is just what we need, but most of the time I find that this age we live in is—you know—good enough. And yet one night a few weeks back, as I walked home in the dark from a book club engagement, one of those New-Agey words popped into my head: shaman.
Yeah. As I walked home from a meeting right here in Santa Barbara, California, that’s what I felt like: a shaman. Maybe I didn’t exactly feel like one, but for the first time, I could sense the power those ancient storytellers wielded through their words.
This little city bristles with book club encounters every night of the week. Readers congregate in highbrow get-togethers and lowbrow get-togethers, well-heeled gatherings and run-down-at-the-heel gatherings, co-ed clubs, single-sex clubs and not-all-that-keen-on-sex clubs. But all these confabs have two characteristics in common.
One is food. Many so-called book clubs are actually misnomered: They are more accurately food and drink clubs. And huzzah to that! I’ve stuffed myself with full-on meals, nibbled at dainty noshes and, as a special tribute to my first book, taken part in a blood-orange-themed spread. You have not lived till you’ve tasted calamondin and blood orange pound cake. Yet, I digress.
Another feature these meetings have in common is that they encourage some feisty conversations, especially among my fellow Santa Barbarians.
Notice, I don’t claim readers think Blood Orange and Black Current are the greatest reads since Ulysses. But here in our town, these books are proving to be provocative, flaring matches put to drought-dried kindling.
When I arrive at a book club meeting, I usually say that I’ll stay for no more than an hour. I warn the members in advance that they might grow tired of me, and also that they might like to have time to say what they honestly think, once I leave. It makes no difference: I always seem to be driving or trotting home around 10:30, my mind roiling from the torrid and intense conversation, in no way ready for sleep.
The questions begin innocently enough. For example: Why is Jaymie Zarlin’s office address, 101 W. Mission, in fact that of the Cat and Bird Clinic? But soon, minutia dispensed with, matters warm up.
Are the rich so awful? Are cops corrupt? Are people that mean? So we talk about the bad in good people, and the good in bad. We talk about the abuse of power and the power money bestows. About corruption, both personal and systemic. And we talk about that corruption right here in River City, not in some theoretical realm.
In every book club I’ve visited, somebody has had her cage rattled. At one recent gathering, people were debating in twos and threes when a young woman said loudly: “Jenny, I’ve never heard you talk like that!” The room fell silent. Flushed, the accused looked away. For maybe the first time in her life, Jenny had publicly dropped the f-bomb.
I’ve thought about shamans over the past few weeks. How did they work their magic? They were conduits, mediums, copper wires. The shaman had her ear to the ground, a nose for the news, she didn’t miss much. And she let all that flow into her, through her, and on out to the ineffable, what we fear and don’t understand. Then all that power, transformed into story, flowed back again.
The face of the fear doesn’t matter: Once upon a time there were broken limbs that turned septic, and mountain lions that could flail open a man. Now we have terrorists, torturers, rapists. The bogeyman changes masks as the centuries pass, but never his nature, which is the ability to evoke dread.
The shaman’s tools never change, either. She has only three, but what a three they are! People, places and things. Waving those three wands, she teases out her listeners’ fears and dreams and heartbreak, then weaves all that chaos to make a map, a guide for survival. A story.
When book club members ask me questions about the settings, characters and special objects in Blood Orange and Black Current, I know their interest is piqued. But when they ignore my answers and insist on supplying their own, that’s when I know I’m their conduit: The readers are redeeming my stories, remaking them into their own.
Recently at one local meeting, an older woman announced she knew the real life people I’d used to create two of my characters, Dr. Bruce and Cynthia Wiederkehr. In fact, Bruce and Cynthia were created from whole cloth, but I had the good sense to keep quiet.
My reader whispered their names to a friend sitting beside her, and the two women raised eyebrows and exchanged knowing smiles. The Sha-Woman reached for a slice of chocolate cheesecake, and felt good. She’d given it over to them, it was their story now.
Thanks, Karen! Readers, Black Current is now available!
Suspense author Alafair Burke's new Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night, came out last month, on June 10. Oh, happy day—the on-sale day—also known as the day that makes authors crazy.
It’s not the reading or writing of books that makes an author stupid. It’s a book’s publication that seemingly shaves a standard deviation from an author’s IQ.
About a week before a new book comes out, I start to lose sleep, playing Words With Friends until 2 AM only to wake up at 5 from a dream that makes the Kimye-on-a-motorcycle music video seem ordinary. Awake, I’m too unfocused to produce anything useful, so I find myself in front of my refrigerator, posting dog pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (the time-suck trifecta), and, the worst, repeatedly refreshing the not-yet-published book’s Amazon page to check its ranking. (Oh, c’mon @YouJudgmentalWriterYou, you know you’ve done it!)
By the time pub date comes, my brain is like a lazy uncle watching infomercials in his boxer shorts surrounded by Pop-Tarts, canned frosting and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
And this has been only the precursor to on-sale week, when, if you’re lucky, you get to hit the road, juggling interviews and blog posts between flights. In some ways, the learning curve here can be steep: I get better by the minute at talking about the book and my writing process. It’s like a master class in how-to-talk-like-a-writer. But becoming a book-talking savant can extract a cognitive price.
Here are a few of the idiotic things I have done on book tour:
Supposedly Lloyds of London will insure anything. If so, they should consider selling a policy to cover all of the stray jackets, make-up bags, flip-flops and headphones I have lost over the years during on-sale week.
In a search for validation that I was not the sole victim of this phenomenon, I contacted some of my favorite authors to ask whether they, too, get stupid during on-sale week. This is what they told me.
Michael Connelly, author of The Burning Room:
“I have gone to the wrong hotel room, trying to open the door of the room corresponding to the room number of the night before. Usually this is late at night and more than once this effort has awakened and scared the crap out of the sleeping occupant. I’ve been mistaken as a would-be hot prowler and grabbed by security a couple times. They rarely buy my explanation that I was in room 213 the night before in a city in another state.”
Megan Abbott, author of The Fever:
“Once, in Scottsdale, Vicki Hendricks and I escaped scorching heat by ducking in a bar for a beer before our event. A man in his cups—on his way to jail for a month—pulled down his pants to show us a Mom tattoo on his posterior.” (The punchline? They thought maybe, just maybe, he’d show up at their reading as promised.)
Chris Pavone, author of The Accident:
“I stop sleeping well a week before [the on-sale date]. I fall asleep poorly, then I wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. I think working would be no good, so instead I read, then I seem to fall asleep again just as I should be getting up, so then someone wakes me, which results in me being overtired and cranky at the exact point when I most need to be well-rested and happy.”
Laura Lippman, author of After I’m Gone:
“I got into the wrong town car when I was booked on 'CBS Morning.' I had my contacts in (oh, vanity), and I misread the driver's sign. Almost ended up at the 'Today' show.”
Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street:
“I found myself alone in Boston for the first three nights of my book tour including on my pub date. I was excited and nervous and lonely, and didn't really know what to do with myself at night. So I drank as if I was on spring break. During the days I ran from event to event a little more dazed and confused then was appropriate for a newly published author.”
Lisa Unger, author of In the Blood:
“I am scatterbrained and confused on the road, overwhelmed I think with so many logistics, demands, exhilarations and disappointments (it ain't all awards and standing room only). Once, while packing for a conference, I practically sprained my shoulder patting myself on the back for being so organized and such a light packer. It wasn't until I arrived at my destination that I realized I had neglected to pack any pants!”
Today—after accidentally swallowing tomorrow’s allotment of pills from my vitamin container—I vaguely recalled from my college psych education that this temporary case of the I-Love-Lucies might have a cognitive explanation. Because I certainly wasn’t sleeping, I shot off a late-night email to my undergrad mentor, Daniel Reisberg (Reed College, author of The Science of Perception and Memory).
“People can do a wide range of things on auto-pilot,” Dr. Reisberg explains, “but automatic behaviors tend to be easy, but badly-controlled, and often leave you with actions that are habitual (even if they’re not what you intended at that moment). For example, you’re in the car, driving to the store. You intend to turn left at the corner, but, under stress, you turn right, taking the route that you usually take on your way to school.”
So that’s why I head for my usual airport (Newark) when I’m supposed to go to LaGuardia, turn right into a restroom instead of left, and walk out of a hotel room carrying the book I was in the middle of reading instead of a book I finished writing months before.
I should feel comforted, but I’m not.
I get stupid because of stress? Ten books in, shouldn’t I be beyond that? After all, I know, at an intellectual level, that by the time the books are printed and shipped, there’s nothing more for me to do. Whatever happens this week is out of my control.
Stress? Nah, I’m too cool for that. But these silly slips reveal the ugly truth.
Author photo credit Deborah Copaken Kogan.