Writing an Academic Mystery

 

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My books by Dorothy Sayers. Picture by N. M. Cedeño

Academic mysteries are a timeless subgenre in crime fiction. Found on almost every list of the best mysteries ever written, Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night is the epitome of British academic mysteries and is one of my favorite books. Several British mystery series that have been adapted for television are set in the university towns of Oxford or Cambridge with students and professors as witnesses and suspects. Academic mysteries fill a popular niche in the world of crime fiction.

While I enjoy academic mysteries, I never planned to write one. Instead, I fell into it. When I was creating my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series and fleshing out my characters, I blithely imagined my main character Lea to be a graduate student in history who happened to have the ability to see ghosts and the ability to sense the emotional history of a location. Since I made her a grad student, I assigned Lea to my own alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After writing several short stories in the series, I decided to write a novel. That first novel, The Walls Can Talk, was set in an Irish castle that had been moved to central Texas, bringing its resident ghost with it. In that book, I developed a subplot involving Lea’s graduate work. When I sat down to write the second book in the series, Degrees of Deceit, I realized that I wanted to extend Lea’s story line and that the natural setting would be the campus at U.T. Austin. Suddenly, I was writing an academic mystery.

Three quarters of the way into the first draft, a question popped into my head. I realized that most of the books set at real universities were British. I wondered, why don’t American authors set books at real academic institutions? I consulted Google, looking for an answer. And, I discovered that authors in the United States don’t set mysteries at known universities for fear of being sued for “disparaging” the universities.

Which led me to think, British authors do it all the time. Don’t British authors fear being sued?

Back to Google. And, yes, British authors fear being sued too. But British authors have a simple solution to avoid legal action because British universities are organized differently than American universities. Oxford, for example, currently has 39 colleges that are separate entities within the larger university. British authors avoid getting sued by creating fictional colleges. This allows British authors to use the well-known buildings, landscapes, and towns around the real universities while centering the plot in a fake college. Dorothy Sayers even placed a hefty author’s note at the beginning of Gaudy Night explaining how she did this.

Lacking this option, many American authors resort to creating thinly veiled, fictional versions of the university that they want to use as a setting. Consequently, American readers almost never get to read crime novels set among the famous buildings of extant American universities.

Having previously written paranormal and science fiction mysteries, I knew nothing of the complicated legal machinations used by other authors in writing academic mysteries. When I started writing my academic mystery, I jumped into the writing completely blind to the fraught legal matters associated with the genre.

Then, of course, when I discovered the possible legal ramifications, I panicked and stopped writing, afraid that I would have to rewrite my entire manuscript with a different setting. Then, I panicked again, realizing that I couldn’t move the setting to a nonexistent, fictional university because I’d already identified the university Lea attended in the previous, already-published books and stories. I couldn’t keep the story line without the setting.

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Image by Pixabay

In a state of dread, I called the U. T. Austin legal department, where a nice lady told me that I had the legal right to set a story at U. T. Austin as long as I avoided using the names of any actual university employees, past or present. I researched my characters names to see if they resembled any known employees. None did. Relieved, I finished writing the novel.

Still, a nagging worry grew in the back of my brain. I had nightmares that the answer the legal department woman gave me was too simple. If the answer was so easy, why did other authors avoid setting novels at universities? I asked a few lawyer friends their opinion on the matter. They told me I was right to be worried. The answer I was given was too simple. I could still get sued.

With a complete manuscript hanging in the balance, I set out to try to minimize any legal issues because I really had no intention of disparaging anyone. Most of the novel revolved around a single dorm on the U. T. campus, one that I had lived in as a student. I decided setting the story in a real dorm might be too risky. Someone might think I was writing about actual students in the actual dorm. I couldn’t create a fake college, but I could create a fake dorm. I decided to rename the dorm and set the story in a thinly veiled, fictional dorm instead of in a real one.

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Cover designed by Brandon Swann

After renaming the dorm and changing some details associated with it, I sent the completed manuscript off to the editor for review. The editor liked my story and now my academic mystery is finally ready for publication. Following Dorothy Sayer’s lead, I’ve included a hefty author’s note explaining that the dorm and the story are entirely fictional. Degrees of Deceit comes out later this month.

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Find more about my books at nmcedeno.com or at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Homicide Detective Speaks to Writers’ Group

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Logo provided by Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter

At the June Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas meeting, Detective Dave Fugitt presented an overview of the Austin Police Department Homicide Unit. Local mystery author and Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor introduced Det. Fugitt as the best homicide investigator in the Austin Police Department. In his capacity as ADA, Mr. Pryor and Det. Fugitt have worked together on murder cases in Travis County.

Fugitt is a member of the Homicide Investigators of Texas and the International Homicide Investigators Association. The International Homicide Investigators Association holds annual symposiums for detectives from around the world. During these meetings, detectives share ideas for solving cold cases and keep up to date on new techniques and technology in forensics and crime solving. The association also holds regional training events around the United States.

As an APD homicide investigator Fugitt has been the lead investigator on 48 homicides in his career and has closed 45 of them. He would still like to solve those other three cases, one of which is the first case he was ever assigned as a lead detective. Fugitt also has assisted in over 500 homicide investigations as a member of the homicide unit. Of these cases, the detective said that cases involving victims engaged in risky or illegal behaviors tended to be difficult to solve and his first case that remains unsolved falls into that category.

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graphic provided by Pixabay

 

According to Fugitt, each detective in the homicide unit is assigned 3 to 5 homicides each year as the lead investigator. While working those cases, each officer also investigates suicides, accidents, and deaths from unknown causes and assists with murder cases assigned to others in the unit. Cases are assigned using a unique rotation system. This detective rotation system is different from systems used by homicide units in other cities and has been very successful for the Austin Police Department. Other cities have sent representatives to Austin to review this rotation system to see if it would work for them.

The detective provided a wealth of information about homicide investigations for audience members, including describing the interrogation rooms, layout of the homicide unit, and the equipment available to detectives.

Fugitt explained that police officers undergo training and classes to keep up to date with new investigative practices. He has had approximately 5,722 hours of training from the police department. One recent class was “Crime Scene Shooting Reconstruction.” Fugitt also reads Forensics Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine to learn new methods of evidence analysis and collection. He recommends books for reference material, including Practical Homicide Investigation and The Death Investigators Handbook.

Fugitt has been involved in high-profile investigations, several of which have been documented in books and movies. He participated in the investigation into the death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and investigated the murder of Jennifer Cave. During the meeting, Fugitt answered a variety of questions for local authors regarding evidence collection and investigation practices. He admitted that he tries to see the victim’s body as evidence to be reviewed, but that it is harder to separate emotion from cases involving the murder of children. He stated that family support is critical for members of his unit because of how much time they spend working on new cases as the lead investigator.

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Graphic provided by Pixabay

The detective shared anecdotes from his own personal experience working in the homicide unit. For example, Det. Fugitt told a story about a case he assisted on when he was first assigned to the homicide unit. The lead detective asked Fugitt to tell him how a small amount of blood landed on a nearby mirror. Fugitt looked at the blood, which appeared to be high velocity spatter, but could not see how the blood could possibly have landed where it did, given the position of the body in the case. He was puzzled, but the lead detective told him to stare at it for a moment and the answer would come to him. After a moment feeling stupid, Det. Fugitt observed a fly landing on the mirror and leaving blood behind. He realized that the apparent spatter was really blood droplets transferred from the fly when it landed on the mirror.

Detective Fugitt was a wonderful speaker and willingly answered the questions put to him by authors in the audience. Several members of this blog, Ink-Stained Wretches, attended the meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas holds monthly meetings on a variety of topics, including inviting  guest speakers of interest to mystery authors and readers. Check them out at Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime

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Full disclosure: N. M. Cedeño, the author of this blog, is also the current President of the Sisters in Crime-Heart of Texas Chapter. She writes traditional, sci-fi, and paranormal mysteries. Her new paranormal mystery, Degrees of Deceit will be published later this year. Her work can be found at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Learning to Write My Way: A Cautionary Tale

Don’t do what I did.

First, I learned how to write. Then, I learned how not to write. Then, I had to relearn how to write again.

woman-thinking writingWhen I first started writing, each story was a new adventure with new characters and settings. Stories ideas would come into my brain, marinate for a few days, and then I’d start working. I didn’t make a conscious plan to create stories in any particular genre. I wrote stories for me, telling the stories I wanted to tell as the ideas came to me. Having analyzed and written short stories during my education, the process came naturally to me. I simply sat down and began working, knowing the story needed a strong opening, rising action, a climax, and a dénouement.

As I grew more confident in my work and began submitting my short stories to magazines, I thought I’d figured out how to write. So I challenged myself to complete a novel length work, 60,000 words. I decided to write a mystery novel.

WritingMessyBut although I’d analyzed novels previously, the only thing I’d written of any great length was a nonfiction honor’s thesis for my undergraduate degree. I had never studied how to craft a novel. While I knew the story still required the same basic pieces, the idea of creating something so long and complex without preparation seemed daunting. I decided to read books about the process, to learn what I needed to know before diving in blindly.

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong books to direct me. Though the books came with great reviews and were highly recommended for learning to craft mystery novels, they all espoused one particular style: a carefully plotted method that involved mapping the book in detail in advance. Recognizing this as the method I had been taught to produce nonfiction, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. This must be the way to produce book-length works.”

All of my short stories had been written in a free-flowing, organic style with minimal advance plotting. I scribbled down a handful of notes and ideas on character or plot and started working, letting the story come to life on the page as I went. When I tried to write my first novel, I dropped that spontaneous process and tried to plot everything as the books I’d read suggested.

leave-839225_1280And thus, I shot myself in the foot. I inhibited my writing process by trying to follow someone else’s methods.

The joy went out of my work.

I was unable to get beyond a chapter or two before quitting.

After reassessing the situation, I began looking for other ways of crafting novels. This search lead me to discover the “pantser vs plotter” approaches. “Pantsers,” people who wrote “by the seat of their pants,” making things up as they went, were a whole category of authors. Their approach was fundamentally opposite to the “plotters,” authors who planned and outlined all the details in advance. Once I learned about these basic style differences, I found other authors who advised beginners to find their own method for writing books and not try to use anyone else’s. I found blogs and quotes from successful authors that said the only rule for writing was to actually put words on the page. How you arrived at that point was irrelevant.

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All pictures from Pixabay

So I took another stab at writing a novel, having finally understood that I had to write “my way” and not somebody else’s way. I finished my first novel, a second, and a third, and now the fourth will be coming out later this year. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow their method to write a book. Find your own process and start writing.

Writing in an Atmosphere of Intimidation

Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.

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art from Pixabay

But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.

In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.

In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.

The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.

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art from Pixabay

Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.

Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.

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art from Pixabay

It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.

We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno