Characters We’re Drawn To

By Helen Currie Foster

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

Bouchercon: It’s All About Community!

No one else in my family writes novels. When I talk about plotting and pacing, my husband gives me the same blank stare that I give him when he goes into detail about software architecture and development. However, my husband has community and coworkers available to him for discussing the intricacies of his work. Sitting at home at my desk, I didn’t have that same community available because writing is generally a solitary occupation. Writers have to go out of their way to find other writers with whom to socialize and talk shop.

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Beth Wasson, Sherry Harris, and me (N. M. Cedeno) at the SinC table at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Molly Weston

Recognizing the need for colleagues who understood my work, I sought out a local organization that I could join. My search brought me to a chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support the work of crime fiction writers like me. My local chapter, the Heart of Texas Chapter, provides monthly meetings on topics related to crime fiction and writing and creates a place to meet and talk to other crime fiction authors. Suddenly, I had colleagues with whom to discuss my work. I had found my people.

What I didn’t immediately realize was the extent of the community that I had joined. While I knew that other chapters of Sisters in Crime (SinC) existed around the world, I didn’t consider the larger writing community as a whole. Comfortable with my local community, the world community’s existence escaped my attention.

Never having attended one, I knew nothing about large conventions. I have never been a fan-girl, anxious to meet and shake the hand of my favorite authors. If I thought about my favorite authors at all, I would have assumed they were sitting at home, writing, like I was, and sometimes going out to meet with other local authors. Sure, some of the top 5% go on book tours, and children’s authors visit schools. But, I’d never imagined what it would look like if mystery writers and readers from across the country got together to meet, talk about crime fiction, and socialize.

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Helen Currie Foster and Peter Lovesey at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Then, Bouchercon came to my state.

Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers named after Anthony Boucher, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a massive conference in Dallas, Texas. The importance of the event dawned on me as I began to receive notifications from Sisters in Crime about the events that they would be holding during the convention. As a local chapter president, I was asked to attend the chapter presidents’ meeting to be held after the Sisters in Crime Breakfast on a Friday during the conference. With an invitation to attend, vote on important matters, and discuss issues facing chapters, I registered for the conference and signed up to attend the SinC breakfast.

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Rhys Bowen at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Arriving at the conference, I realized I’d walked into an event that looked like my local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings multiplied a hundred-fold in scale. Instead of local authors getting together to discuss topics and socialize for an hour or two, mystery writers and readers from all over the world came together to talk and socialize for 4 days. And almost everyone was friendly. I found myself riding in elevators with world-renowned editors, discussing the schedule with best-selling authors, and sitting with critically acclaimed international authors at breakfast.

When I could make my introverted-self attempt a conversation, each and every author I spoke to was polite, interested in talking to me, and happy to pose for pictures as I documented the event for my chapter newsletter.

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Me (N. M. Cedeno) and Anne Hillerman at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Helen Currie Foster

After attending lunches, breakfasts, dinners, award ceremonies, and many panel discussions with mystery authors and readers from around the world, I came home exhausted, but extremely happy to have been welcomed into the larger mystery community. While I won’t be able to attend massive mystery conferences every year, simply knowing that they exist is a boost to my spirits.

I look forward to the next time I’m able to join the larger mystery community and talk to colleagues from around the country and around the world. In the meantime, I hope to infuse my local Sisters in Crime meetings with the welcoming spirit and sense of community that I found at Bouchercon.

New Mystery Series: Bullet Books Speed Reads at Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival  opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series will be launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

An Interview with Author Lois Winston

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Lois Winston

Award winning author, Lois Winston, has a new crafting mystery coming out for the holidays! She has kindly allowed me to interview her about her writing and to present her upcoming book, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide.

1.   Tell us about your series and your latest book.
Although I’ve written in various genres in the past, I currently write the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, a humorous cozy series that debuted in 2011. There are now seven novels and three novellas. The eighth novel, Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide, is currently available for pre-order and will be released October 1st.

Anastasia, a women’s magazine crafts editor, lived a typical suburban middle-class life with her husband and two sons until her husband permanently cashed in his chips in Las Vegas. Turns out the guy was a closet gambler who left her with debt greater than the GNP of Uzbekistan. (The wife is always the last to know.) And did I mention the loan shark wants his money—or else? Anastasia is one step away from losing her home and moving her family into a cardboard box on a street corner.

It would be an extremely crowded cardboard box, given that along with her teenage sons, her household includes her communist mother-in-law, her much-married mother, her mother’s cat, her mother-in-law’s dog, and Ralph, the Shakespeare-quoting parrot. Plus, there’s Zack Barnes, a photojournalist who rents the apartment above Anastasia’s garage and who has wormed his way into her life. Zack is the one good thing that has happened to Anastasia over the past year, except she suspects he’s a spy.

And then there are the dead bodies that keep showing up as Anastasia tries to stave off the bill collectors, transforming this magazine crafts editor into a reluctant amateur sleuth.

      2. What is the most challenging part of the business of writing for you?
Finding new and different ways to kill people. 😉

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Image by Pixabay

3. Tell us about your main character. What inspired you to create this character?
I was writing romance, romantic suspense, and chick lit when one day an editor told my agent she was looking for a crafting cozy mystery series. Knowing my day job was as a designer and editor in the consumer crafts industry, my agent thought I’d be the perfect person to write such a series. So I gave it a try and have never looked back.

In many ways, Anastasia is my alter ego. We’re both Jersey girls with two sons (although mine are no longer teenagers) and have had similar careers. I also had a communist mother-in-law, which led to the creation of Anastasia’s mother-in-law. But my husband doesn’t gamble, is still very much alive, and I’ve never discovered a dead body—yet.

     4. You are a member of Sisters in Crime. Do you feel membership in writers’ groups is important to a writer? How does it help you?
One of the greatest benefits of writers’ groups is being able to network with other writers and learn from them. When I began writing, I didn’t realize how little I knew until I joined several writing organizations and became educated, both in craft and the business end of writing. Not only did I find my agent at a writing organization’s annual conference, I have found friendships that I know will last the rest of my life.

     5. What do you read for fun?
Aside from mysteries, I enjoy historical fiction, biographies, women’s fiction, and anything that makes me laugh.

*****

Be sure to read Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 8 !

Ho-Ho epub cover-72Two and a half weeks ago magazine crafts editor Anastasia Pollack arrived home to find Ira Pollack, her half-brother-in-law, had blinged out her home with enough Christmas lights to rival Rockefeller Center. Now he’s crammed her small yard with enormous cavorting inflatable characters. She and photojournalist boyfriend and possible spy Zack Barnes pack up the unwanted lawn decorations to return to Ira. They arrive to find his yard the scene of an over-the-top Christmas extravaganza. His neighbors are not happy with the animatronics, laser light show, and blaring music creating traffic jams on their normally quiet street. One of them expresses his displeasure with his fists before running off.

In the excitement, the deflated lawn ornaments are never returned to Ira. The next morning Anastasia once again heads to his house before work to drop them off. When she arrives, she discovers Ira’s attacker dead in Santa’s sleigh. Ira becomes the prime suspect in the man’s murder and begs Anastasia to help clear his name. But Anastasia has promised her sons she’ll keep her nose out of police business. What’s a reluctant amateur sleuth to do?

Available  for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo.

*****

USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. 

Find Lois at www.loiswinston.com

Recommended Reading: Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others

 

by Renee Kimball

Pat Schneider is a poet-healer, a guide and shaman who believes writing is the means to self-healing. Writing Alone and with others is a writer’s guide to forgiving and giving yourself permission to write your story that opens a way to finding the better you.

There are gems of wisdom in Schneider’s book for writers and would-be-writers. Each page speaks in a kind of firm best-friend voice. It is directed to anyone and everyone. Quoting Will Stafford, Schneider affirms: “A writer is someone who writes”—stating whether writing a letter, email, or merely a report, we all write. If writing calls to you, you must answer the call, if you do not, you damage yourself—whatever your write, it is your art—your story—and your right to write.

When we neglect the artist in ourselves, there is a kind of mourning that goes on under the surface of our busy lives.

If you are troubled and wish to heal, then the act of writing will heal you. Your story does not have to be shared in order for you to be whole. Of course, there are those who want to share, and that is a good thing. But whatever path is chosen, the medicine—writing—will heal you.

The very act of writing takes courage, it is an act exposing your most vulnerable self. You know which writers’ stories relate to you. If you share, it may be the story that irrevocably changes not only your path, but another’s path, you never know—it is a risk. Take the risk to write, whether you share or not, and you will heal.

Writing is a scary thing to do and the bad news is, it never stops being scary. Once I was at a luncheon with several writers and one of them had won the Pulitzer Prize. And he said: “What in God’s name do you write after you’ve won the Pulitzer?” And he was terrified. And I know someone else who has written book after book . . . and he’s miserable when he’s writing his next book, because he says, “I’ll never finish, I can’t do this. How did I get myself into this?” ~ Interview

Pat Schneider by Deekatherine [CC BY-SA 4.0]. via Wikimedia Commons

Schneider’s book is a firm but loving GET TO IT message, a message to GET ON WITH YOUR WRITING AND HEAL YOURSELF – Look into the dark corners of yourself, write them down, clear them out, banish them, shed them, become whole.

Schneider encourages everyone to “Write something that feels too huge, or too dangerous, to tell. Courage is not the special prerogative of those who have experienced some dramatic suffering.”

This is a hefty book, a thoughtful book, and whether you are an old-hand at writing, a beginner, or simply seeking personal solace through writing, Schneider’s book will fill you up and just may be the start towards a new beginning.

*

To grow in craft is to increase the breadth of what I can do, but art is the depth, the passion the desire, the courage to be myself and myself alone.

GOING HOME THE LONGEST WAY AROUND

we tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
we make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
diminishing returns.
Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.
And they were silent, the children,
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.
It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.

~ Pat Schneider

For more of Pat Schneider’s poems visit her blog.  

References

Pat Schneider.Writing alone and with others. The guide that will beat the block, banish fear, and help create lasting work.

Pat Schneider – Online Interview – On Writing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQ1ukC0KWZI Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press) Published on Apr 24, 2013

 

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

THE SCENT OF A WOMAN…THEATER…SEA

by Helen Currie Foster

Even just thinking of certain smells can yank me straight back to childhood. Oil paint­­s? Mama working on her first portrait. Jello chocolate pudding mix? My sister standing on a chair, eyebrows level with the gas flame, stirring a saucepanful for us to share. A little chlorine? Joyous summer afternoon at Northwest Park pool.

Mindful that writers use sensory images to make a page come alive, I had a mission––locate smells. I pulled books off the shelf.

Of course I went first to my personal favorite, To the Lighthouse (1927), sure that the brilliant descriptions of the island, of time passing, would include smell. I found nothing until page 19 (the wind “drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds…”). Finally, on page 33, Lily Briscoe describes William Bankes (“a widower, smelling of soap, very scrupulous and clean”). We know just from the soap that nothing will come of this relationship.

Lonesome Dove. Chapters One-Two: vivid visual images, great dialogue, descriptions of food (beans)––but no smell until Chapter Three when Lorena observes, looking across the river at Mexico, “…it didn’t look any more interesting than Texas, and the men stunk just as bad as Texans, if not worse.” “Stunk.” Not much, but it gets the point across.

Treasure Island (1882). Chapters One-Two: scary characters, scars, blood, cutlasses and rum––but no smell until Chapter Three when the captain “put his nose out of doors to smell the sea….”

Maybe Victorian/post-Victorian writers were loath to mention bodily smells. However, the smell of the sea seems to be all right. Considering how repugnant Virginia Woolf (at least initially) found Ulysses (1914) when it first appeared, I checked Chapter One and found Stephen Dedalus’s famous dream of his dead mother, who begged him to kneel and pray at her deathbed, but he refused:

Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Well. That’s strong.

Kim (1901): thankfully, in Kipling’s colorful description of Delhi during the Raj, Kim meets the lama from the far-off Himalayas:

He was old, and his woollen gaberdine still reeked of the stinking artemisia of the mountain passes.

Now we see the lama, high above the plains, striding through the mountains. And we smell that artemisia.

The Sound and the Fury (1929). Faulkner gives us Benjy, waiting with his caretaker Versh for his big sister Caddy:

I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold.

“You better put them hands back in your pockets.”

Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said.

She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves.

Later Benjy adds “Caddy smelled like trees.” With all we later hear of Caddy, we won’t forget that she smelled like leaves, like trees.

At this point I’d concluded that despite all the big talk about writers appealing to our senses, smells are sparsely put about. Visual imagery: everywhere. Sure, Proust included taste, dipping his famous madeleine into tea. But smell? Well, it’s powerful when used…which seems sparing.

Except in some mysteries. Not every mystery. Take Dorothy Sayers. Her Gaudy Night begins with protagonist Harriet Vane, recently exonerated of murder charges in Strong Poison, setting out for an Oxford class reunion, and searching for her academic robe:

She dragged out an ancient trunk, unlocked it and flung back the lid. A close, cold odor.

I found little more, but that one phrase suggested Vane’s bitter history and, in a way, her take on the plot to come.

For more extensive use, consider Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), where the theatre and some characters are rich with odor. Nineteen-year-old Martyn Tarne arrives by ship from New Zealand, hoping to act in London, but loses her travelers cheques. On a rainy evening, exhausted and hungry, she accidentally lands a job as dresser to Helena Hamilton, lead actress at the Vulcan, where Martyn’s permitted to spend the night:

She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp and facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.

She meets Helena Hamilton, her employer:

she was only vaguely aware of a fragrance in the air and a new voice in the passage. The next moment her employer came into the dressing room.

It took Martyn a moment or two to realize that this was her cue to remove Miss Hamilton’s coat. She lifted it from her shoulders––­­it was made of Persian lamb and smelt delicious­­––and hung it up.

Then she meets Hamilton’s actor husband, a middle-aged, handsome man with a raffish face. “He went out, leaving a faint rumour of alcohol behind him.”

As to the theater dogsbody, Jacko, to Martyn “he smelt of toothpaste and nicotine.”

Only a few of Marsh’s characters identify themselves to Martyn as distinctive fragrances. For instance, Helena Hamilton’s unique, expensive and “delicious” fragrance matches her talent. But scent is key to Marsh’s setting. Martyn’s encounters with the smells of the Vulcan––naphthalene and plush, dressing rooms with their banks of flowers, greasepaint and cosmetics­––make the entire building come alive for us.

Smells. They’re stored in our individual attics as powerful yet faint and fleeting memories of a specific moment, a specific place. Maybe smells are, and should be, used sparingly because of their immediacy. Marsh is stingy: Helena isn’t “tagged” with fragrance; it doesn’t appear and reappear, page after page. It’s shared with us as part of Martyn’s first impression of the character.

Writers repeat for characters their visual tags (the hat, the eyebrows, the frown) and their dialogue and voice tags (“Whatever you say, dear”). In contrast, in creating character and scene, perhaps smells call for restraint or subtlety. “Caddy smelled like leaves.” We know what that means, though we don’t know exactly what it smells like. We can supply our own memory there, our own leaves, and the sense of the smell belongs to us immediately.

Have you ever opened a box, a closet, containing the stored possessions of someone you love, and found that the first whiff reminds you…and then disappears? We can’t on demand repeat the impact of the stored memory of smell. Like a first impression, smells are permanently stored in the memory attic, but not reliably accessible. In fact, words can’t readily capture certain smells. I’ve tried and failed to put into words the tender memory of the smell of my mother’s house. Words haven’t yet captured it. Was it compounded of specific elements, like floor wax, bath powder, books, cooking? Naah. That doesn’t work.

Talking about this with my brother, he agreed that actual smells can be “keys straight into the lock of memory but are very difficult to describe unless they’re well known and simply identified: lavender, diesel exhaust, bacon.” He said, “I do like it when the writer tries, though!”

He added that one of his favorite smells is the smell of a child running in from play outside in the cool evening. Well, I can’t think of words to describe exactly what that child smells like, but the description––the child running in from play outside in the cool evening––opened a key in my own memory cabinet. I knew that smell when he described it.

Maybe writers are sparing with this, our most primitive and sensitive sense, because it’s hard to find the exact description for certain smells in, say, the writer’s memory cabinet. Yet it’s possible to convey the sense of that smell to a reader. And we do “like it when the writer tries”!

*

helen-currie-foster-hotxsincHelen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

Writing an Academic Mystery

 

SayersbksA
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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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