Anyone who lives in Texas knows that Hollywood’s version of Texas and the actual Texas are very different places. Mostly, we Texans roll our eyes and dismiss the errors, but it’s difficult to ignore errors when they yank us out of whatever story we are trying to enjoy. Recently I watched a movie set in Texas and read several stories that were set in Texas or that featured Texan characters. However, as a Texan, I could tell the director of the movie didn’t care about getting the setting details right, and I could tell the authors of the stories didn’t understand Texan speech patterns. Errors distracted me from the plots in both the movie and the stories.
On someone’s recommendation, I watched the Tom Hanks movie News of the World. I learned quickly that the director favored filming sweeping vistas and that the background and environment were essential to the plot. The director, unlike the author of the book on which the movie is based, clearly didn’t care about getting the setting details right. The movie got Texas disappointingly wrong, which distracted me from the story line several times.
The same standard holds true for literature as it does for movies. If you don’t get the details right, no matter how great your plot is, you can lose the reader. For example, in some stories I read recently featuring characters from Texas, the author used regional speech incorrectly. Specifically, the authors used the word “y’all” wrong.
A Word on the Meaning of “Y’all”
Lots of people are aware that Texans, and a lot of Southerners, say “y’all” as a term for the second person plural. And we do. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all” which means “all of you people.” No Texan would ever call a single individual “y’all.” Not ever. It’s a reference to a group, not an individual.
Now, I may walk up to my brother and say “Y’all should come to lunch tomorrow.” He may be the only one standing there, but he will know from my usage of the word “y’all” that I’m including his wife and kids in the invitation. If I wanted him to come alone, I would say, “You should come to lunch tomorrow.”
Or one college student may say to another, “Y’all should come hang out at my place with us.” This translates to “you and your friends should come and hang out with me and my friends at my residence.” Only two people may be in the conversation, but the usage of the word “y’all” tells anyone listening that more people are involved than are present.
To reiterate: when a Texan says the word “y’all” to a single individual, they are referencing some group to which that individual belongs, and the individual being addressed will understand that group reference because the speaker used the word “y’all” instead of “you.”
Getting “Y’all” Wrong
Back to those stories I read that got things wrong: if a law enforcement officer in a story set in Texas walks up to a single suspect and says to that individual, “Y’all are under arrest,” then the author has failed miserably at using the word. That error will pull the Texan (and probably any Southern) reader completely out of the story.
Or if a mystery author writes a story featuring a character who is supposed to be the only Texan in the story and has that character call an individual “y’all,” that author just created confusion. When I read the above instance in a story, I hoped the misusage of “y’all” was a clue that the character might be lying about her background. Alas, it wasn’t a plot point. It was an error by the author.
Details matter in story telling. When we get them wrong, we pull the reader out of the story, and, depending how egregious the error is, the reader may not come back.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.
Reading is like swimming. Sometimes a novel is like a wading pool, low-level, light, humorous. Then there are others thattake you to the big pool but keep you in the shallow end–sitting on a cement step, water to your waist, but not really in the pool. However, when a story takes you to the deep end and the water covers your head, and you tread water because your toes cannot touch the bottom, then that is when you sink or swim –it is either give up or keep going. .
I found McCullough’s Masters of Rome series searching for information about the Roman Empire. The series was highly reviewed, and although it was a commitment of several months to read the massive seven-book series, it was well worth the effort. When I finished, was in awe of McCullough and wanted to know more about her and her work.
McCullough was born in 1935, in Sydney, Australia. She went on to become a neuropathologist establishing the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. She left after many years to become a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School where she stayed for ten years. McCullough left Yale, and moved to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1977 (Amazon).
McCullough released her first novel, Tim, in 1974. It was well received, but it paled in comparison to the response to the publication of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977. McCullough became an overnight sensation.
The Thorn Birds is an Australian romance novel. The riveting characters, a young Australian woman and a Catholic priest, are caught between an illicit passion for one another and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church. The book eventually was turned into a miniseries, and McCullough’s path was clear; great things were expected of her for the future—and she delivered.
McCullough is a versatile writer comfortable writing across multiple genres: contemporary novels, mystery series, and historical fiction. It took ten years for McCullough to research and write the Masters of Rome series beginning in 1997 through 2007.
Writing historical fiction requires accuracy, particularly when real-life characters and events are incorporated within the overall story. McCullough’s scientific training as a neuropathologist is evident as shown by her meticulous detail of both historical events and characters drawn from ancient sources. She brings her characters to life, people become real, not wooden historical abstractions.
The timeframe of the Masters of Rome series begins in 110 BC with the rise of Gaius Marius as temporary dictator, the rise of Sulla his protégé/ dictator, and before the birth of Julius Caesar; the seven-book series ends with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at the Battle of Actium 31 BC. Octavian seizes power and is declared Augustus. (Photo Wikipedia Commons).
McCullough’s series also includes her own hand drawn detailed maps of the Empire showing territories, various campaigns, as well as, multiple portraits drawn from actual classical statuary, and included within each volume a glossary of Latin terms.
While McCullough published the last book in the Masters series in 2007, she went on to write a variety of detective/mystery and standalone novels till 2013. McCullough passed away in 2015. While she is primarily remembered for The Thorn Birds, I would argue, McCullough’s greatest achievement is found within The Masters of Rome novels. She is greatly missed.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, writing, and animal advocacy [RK1] . She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.
A perfect croissant may have hundreds of layers of dough + butter + dough + butter, made of a packet of dough enclosing a layer of butter, rolled out in a precise rectangle, folded, chilled, rolled, chilled (repeat until you have maybe 600 layers), rolled, then cut into squares which are rolled diagonally and baked in a perfectly hot oven until perfectly brown and the magic has happened. As the butter melts between the many layers, it creates steam which inflates the layers, creating not a single “loaf” of baked dough with a brown crust, but a perfect combination of crunch and tenderness: layers of crunchy brown butteriness, then the airy middle, still wafting yeasty buttery smells toward you. Bite. Let joy be unconfined. What’s your approach? Bite the end off? Peel off the outer layers, flake by triangular flake? Either way, you lay open the mystery of layers. https://www.mic.com/articles/180451/the-science-backed-reasons-why-croissants-always-taste-better-in-paris#:~:text=When%20it%20bakes%2C%20the%20butter,delicious%20flavor%20of%20the%20croissant.
When you bite into a croissant, crisp little layers flying everywhere, with the tastes of yeast, butter, magic, sorting themselves out on your tongue, do you too think of murder mysteries?
It’s the layers. Got to be. Oh, not just croissants. Think of mille feuilles… seven layer dip… your family’s best lasagna…baklava… chocolate mousse layer cake finished with butter cream frosting. Or, at the individual level, consider a perfect taco, precisely the way you like it, the perfect proportion of tortilla to filling to guacamole to sour cream to salsa to [supply your favorite ingredient here].
Layers take work. Think of seven-layer cake. Split the original cake layers, evenly, without bumps and tears. Apply filling. Stack without a disaster (such as uneven layers, sliding in wrong directions). Repeat, repeat, repeat. Carefully ice your beautiful cake. Let no one approach, much less jiggle or wiggle, your cake. Serve with care.
But layers, in the right proportions, create both variety and synthesis. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Back to your own favorite taco, a compilation of layers. When you decorate your taco to your own satisfaction, you bite into a creation that’s more delicious than any of its components.
A mystery requires characters, setting, plot. Each component requires detail. Characters, for instance: we want to know how the main characters look, some of what they think, whom they love. Maybe just a brushstroke to add what music they prefer, or hobbies, or food. Special tics that make them memorable? Of course. Give us what we need to remember each character. And writers are cagey. The cautious reader will wonder: is this new character critical to the plot, or just part of the setting? Is the kindly cashier at the village grocery just there to make the village feel safe and homey, or is he/she a witness to crime? The next victim? Or the criminal? But when a character demands too much page time, sometimes we readers hit the wall. We don’t need to know what the clerk at the village store is wearing. Stop it, we think. Get on with the story! Give us enough to fire our imaginations—we readers can and will supply more detail!
To digress: maybe this imaginative work the reader does (without the author’s permission) is why it’s jarring when a favorite mystery we’ve read appears on television. If we’ve already imagined favorite characters, and the television versions don’t resemble what we now think of as their true selves, we’re faced with a difficult choice. Watch? or retain the original versions in our heads, rejecting the televised version? (This happened to me, but maybe not you, with the televised versions of Cormoran Strike and Robin. Thoughts?)
On the other hand, the WWI flashback at the beginning of the recent Death on the Nile (which is not in Agatha Christie’s original) adds to the character of detective Hercule Poirot—adds a new layer which enriches our understanding of not only his observational acuity, but his apparent emotional detachment. I now think of Agatha Christie’s creation in a more kindly light. Actually, I’ve become attached to Branagh’s version, whereas before I found him a little…tiresome.
Back to the question of how much detail is enough: the same warning holds for setting. Just right, please. English village? New York bar? Hill country town? We appreciate memorable details, but not a travelogue. We want enough detail, but not overkill, on characters and settings.
But then comes plot. Mystery readers are puzzle-solvers, clue-collectors, memory banks. They anticipate that—like the detective—they may traipse down the wrong path. Of course that means there’s more’s to learn, that they aren’t yet in possession of all the facts. More clues to come.
No one likes the dead artist. Wimsey can count six suspects––hence, five red herrings. Wimsey must winkle out the true killer. But oh, the alibis. Train schedules! Missing sailors! A stolen bicycle! The famous artist who’s gone missing, face wrapped in gauze, leaving a tight-lipped butler and a baffled maid who saw—well, no spoilers here either.
While clues point to the killer, red herrings baffle and divert the detective. But they can add layers of richness to a plot. Five Red Herrings would be less than a novella, only a short story, without the layers of red herrings which paint (excuse me) a vivid picture of this art colony—tension, distraction, jealousy, romance, hatred. Certainly the story would lack the puzzles demanded by mystery readers. Furthermore, red herrings affect our emotions. For example, we sympathize with Hugh Farren, the artist who, frustrated by his ever-so-prissy wife, hares off into the countryside, making a living by re-painting pub signs. We hope he’s not the killer, this man who sets up his easel outside a pub and explains to open-mouthed watching children how he’s making the pub sign funny on one side, scary on the other. It’s a great scene. Another layer to the mystery. And let’s face it, to persuade her readers to struggle with those complicated train schedules, Sayers has to keep us caring which artist is the killer.
The WWI flashback in Death on the Nile is neither a clue, nor a red herring. Instead, it offers us a layer of Poirot’s character that doesn’t solve the mystery, doesn’t identify the killer, but adds to our understanding of Poirot’s emotions, deepening, in a way, the impact of his solution of the mystery.
Niccolo’s mathematical and musical gifts, including his memory for Greek liturgy, came back to me as I listened to the sung service. Literature can bestow a gift that keeps on giving, a writer’s description of an event, a scene, that returns to the reader the smell of incense, the sound of voices, and the intensity of a moment imagined by the writer, but which becomes part of the reader’s own imagination. Dunnett’s scene isn’t integral to the plot, to the ultimate discovery at the end of the series of the murderer’s identity, but is a layer that adds to the protagonist’s character and the intensity of his psyche.
I just finished Book 8 of Mick Herron’s unputdownable series and am pawing the earth for the next. But I mention it because Slough House (the name of the building where those who flunk out of MI-5 headquarters wind up), though technically Herron’s setting, functions almost as a character. And my fussing about “not too much detail” above? Inapplicable. Herron embarks on oratorios of detail about Slough House, and because its decrepitude, its slovenliness, its lonesomeness, its outdatedness, so reflect (and infect) the struggles of the changing spies in the building, that I say, bring it on! Herron also does star turns with London weather and landscapes. His treatment of setting is masterful––creating layers of texture, smell, sight, emotion, that become integral to the story.
I’m working on Book 8 of my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, so the “perfect croissant” of plot, setting and character occupies my waking moments. Alice, if you’ve met her, is a lawyer who by training and inclination wants every single fact. She hopes never to be blind-sided. She must decide whether fact A helps her defend her client, and whether her client needs a defense to fact B. She knows the compulsive joy of a new case—a new legal pad of notes, a new box of messy documents. She wants to plunge in, deciding what’s a clue, what’s a red herring. She knows that somewhere in the mess is a key fact, the fact that she knows instinctively will win the case for her client. She’s rooting through the layers, reminding many of us of a favorite poem. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers Or a croissant.
Sounds like a murder mystery, right? Stay tuned.
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by human history and by how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing our parties. Her books are available in Kindle, paperback and on Audible, from Amazon, Ingram Spark, and at various independent bookstores. The latest, Ghost Daughter, has been named First Runnerup for Mystery in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. https://smile.amazon.com/s?k=ghost+daughter&crid=VHN5P2IYJCLZ&sprefix=ghost+daughte%2Caps%2C151&ref=nb_sb_noss_2