Mystery Writers Should Listen to S-Town.

Recently, I gave into pressure from everyone I know and watched S-Town, a podcast from the producers of Serial. By “everyone I know” I mean a bunch of people online who I’ve never met. Nobody I actually know has watched S-Town. That’s neither here nor there, just an observation about my fractured existence. Let me tell you, though, S-Town was just as good as “everyone” told me it would be. S-Town was essentially an excellent mystery novel, the kind of thing that should be enjoyed in an armchair with a tumbler of bourbon, maybe even a cigar. Even the prose was beautiful. Every now and then, Brian Reed would say something that I wish I could highlight, the kind of phrase I might produce after a few drafts. He just said it, though. Poetry came out of his mouth. I guess that’s why he’s on the radio.

Anyways, S-Town is a great mystery. It probably doesn’t hit every beat on Save the Cat, but who does? I for one don’t care that much about the damn cat. S-Town is a true literary mystery. It hits the important beats.

For example, the hook: a guy, John McLemore, called into NPR from Shit Town, Alabama to report a murder. In a leisurely southern drawl, he described his rose garden and then revealed that the Shit Town authorities swept a murder under the rug. The culprit: racism. John Grisham anyone!? The alleged murderer was the heir apparent to Triple K lumber. Don’t you just wish you made that up!? I mean, as an author. It’s deplorable as an actual business name.

Here come a couple of spoilers. They’re big ones, but they come early, both in episode 2, maybe 3. S-Town isn’t one of those books you flip through just to see how it ends. Even if I’ve spoiled it, it’s still worth listening to the whole thing. It’s all about the journey.

So the radio host, Brian Reed, goes down to Alabama and investigates the Triple K murder. Turns out, dun dun dun, plot twist #1, there was no murder.

The story isn’t over, though. Before the end of the next episode, someone else dies. During the remaining episodes, Reed investigates the death of the man who called into the show to report the murder, John McLemore.

It’s not exactly a murder investigation. It’s an investigation of John McElmore’s character, which proves to be a worthwhile pursuit, as he was a very interesting man. Brian Reed interviews people John knew from various periods of John’s unexpected life. He was someone worth hearing about–complicated yet relatable, brilliant. He’s the kind of character writers strive to create.

By the end of the podcast, Brian Reed solves the puzzle of John’s death, at least it seems. It’s a real man’s story, but at the same time it’s the kind of ending that a mystery writer would hope to come up with–surprising, clever, and right in front of everyone’s eyes the whole time. This is contrast to Serial, the other podcast “everyone I know” listened to. I loved Serial, but Sarah Koenig could not provide a satisfying resolution because the story she was investigating didn’t have one.

Anyways, I’d highly recommend S-Town, especially to mystery writers. Real life or no, it’s an example of how character can and should drive plot.

Detecting good fiction

You want to talk about seeds? Detective fiction is planting some really good ideas in me. Most recently, I read The Black Echo, the first in the Harry Bosch series, by Michael Connelly. [I know I’m way late to the game.] My husband started watching Bosch on Amazon and I caught the first season, but dropped off somewhere (I might’ve been in an editing cave). Now, I have to go back and watch Season 2 and 3 because I am fascinated by police procedurals.

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My next manuscript is going to be a teenage riff on detective fiction. Like a quirky, Poconos version of Veronica Mars. And while, I think I have a handle on the process of sleuthing, there are characteristics of a good detective I need to remember. For example, Harry Bosch misses nothing. He understands the business of crime. He knows when a witness is lying, even if he can’t ascertain why at that moment. He subverts the rules when it justifies the outcome. He questions motives. He sees what others don’t. He’s not just a good cop, he’s an astute one.

The most liberating thing about writing teenage detectives is that I don’t need to know the nitty gritty about law and police work. Michael Connelly was a crime beat reporter for the LA Times. When you follow Bosch on an investigation, you feel like a cop. The details are spot on. I like that, but I don’t have the skillset right now to do it. For my teenage sleuth though, she needs to be smart like a detective. She needs to be methodical, and she needs to ask questions. She needs to lay out various scenarios based on the evidence she collects. And that, I feel, I can do (after edits and revisions, of course). If this project comes out as good as it seems in my head, I’ll have a real winner.

Who is your favorite detective? I’d like some recommendations.

Interview: Vinnie Hansen

Welcome Vinnie Hansen, author of Lostart Street and the Carol Sabala mysteries

LostartStreetWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?

I’d sit down with a brilliant idea and dash of 5000 words. Between gusts of genius, I’d glance up at an exotic tropical setting and sip strong coffee laced with half and half. After that hour sprint, I’d spend the rest of the day hiking and exploring with my husband, finishing the day with a meal of fresh fish prepared in a local manner. Before falling asleep, I’d be reading a first-rate book of literary suspense.

Do you have a signature phrase/expression?

If you ask my husband, I use all sorts of “weird” expressions left over from my Midwestern upbringing: “Okie dokie,” “not my cup of tea,” “achin’ for a breakin’.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

For my Carol Sabala mystery series, that’s easy: Sue Grafton with a spash of Martha Grimes’ dark humor and Elmore Leonard’s characterization. But Lostart Street is a cross-genre novel. I can’t pick a dominant influence for it.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. If I were truly listening to music, I wouldn’t be writing. Music is way too distracting. If I like it, it will beckon me. If I don’t like it, why would I be playing it?

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Bittersweet with lots of nuts.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

I wanted to write a book where place impacted the characters and plot, where community is central. As private, independent, and perverse as I may be, I believe we have a deep-seated need to belong. Community can heal wounds and help us feel whole.

I suspect that most genre writers have a hankering to break free from their brand. With Lostart Street, I scratch that itch. Instead of a mystery, Lostart Street is a novel with mystery, a bit of romance, and a death. Or, as I’ve tagged it: a novel of mystery, murder and moonbeams.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

A character with a sense of isolation searching for inclusion/identity/wholeness.

Tell us about your main character?

Twenty-eight-year-old would-be writer Cecile abandons her life in San Francisco to accept a teaching position in a small California coast town. She’s forced to act quickly and rents a unit in a complex meant for the elderly and handicapped. Cecile is wounded from a failed relationship and overwhelmed by her first year of teaching. But her new neighbors won’t leave her alone. A series of events in the apartment complex push her toward a life-changing decision . . . .

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Okay, three characters: Ove from A Man Called Ove, for Cecile’s loneliness and isolation, Sylvia Barrett from Up the Down Staircase because Cecile is struggling through her first year of teaching, and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird because of Cecile’s internal arc.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers you’d include?

Well as fate would have it, there are six other authors at Misterio press, so this works out very nicely. I’d invite K.B. Owen, Kassandra Lamb, Kirsten Weiss, Shannon Esposito, Gilian Baker, and Joan Bassett to my party. We work together all the time, but we’re spread across the country. I’ve met only two of my cohorts face to face. It would be a blast if we could be at a dinner party together.

What’s next for you?

I’ve signed a contract for Sleuthing Women II: Ten Mystery Novellas, which will include Smoked Meat, a prequel to my Carol Sabala series. The e-collection is a follow-up to the best-selling Sleuthing Women: Ten-First-in-Series Mysteries and will be out in the fall of this year. After that, my short story, “Miscalculation,” will appear in Akashic Books’ Santa Cruz Noir in the spring of 2018.

Lostart Street is now available for pre-order!

*****

Vinnie Hansen fled the howling winds of the South Dakota prairie and headed for the California coast the day after high school graduation.

As a child, she read books while huddled on top the dryer. Vinnie grew up to write numerous short stories and the Carol Sabala mystery series. The seventh installment in the series, Black Beans & Venom, made the finalist list for the Claymore Award. Now she brings you Lostart Street, a cross-genre novel of mystery, murder, and moonbeams.

Still sane after 27 years of teaching high school English, Vinnie has retired and lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and the requisite cat.

Visit her website at http://vinniehansen.com or check out all the wonderful female mystery writers at http://misteriopress.com

For a quarterly book recommendation and update on Vinnie’s writing, please sign up for her newsletter http://eepurl.com/cv7F55

Seed to blossom

The other day, a friend of mine posted a picture of her rhododendron bush in full bloom and said, “I swear they burst into bloom overnight!”

Sometimes it’s the same with story seeds.

When I was at Malice Domestic a couple weeks ago, they put out the call for next year’s anthology, Mystery Most Geographical. The idea being that geography is an important part of the story. I was talking to my roommate about it and mentioned I’d worked in Puerto Rico and St. Croix for six months after I graduated from college. She said, “Oh, I bet there’s a story in that!”

A seed.

I continued to bat it around a bit. I did a little research. The island of Puerto Rico. A rainforest, an observation tower, two accidental deaths, superstitions, and the Puerto Rican independence movement (now mostly dead, but that’s another story).

A stalk of green pushes through the dirt.

After a little more thinking, I had a story. A plot. Even the opening paragraph.

A bloom.

And so it goes. I still have to write the rest of the story. But at least it’s underway. And it all started with a single, tiny seed.

What’s The Dirt?

(This post is appearing simultaneously on Suspense Novelist.)

 

Seeds. Some writers can take a seed or two and grow an amazing story seemingly out of thin air.

Me? I need some dirt. Preferably dirt grounded in a social issue. The messier—the muddier—the better.

That’s where TRAFFICKED began. I had a list of topics that were interesting to me and I kept going back to one. Human trafficking. At the time I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This dirt ran deep. And wide. And muddy.

My kind of gardening.

In some ways TRAFFICKED was the most difficult story I’ve ever told. In other ways it flowed from my heart to my head to my fingers to the page effortlessly.

Many readers of this blog are fans of cozy or traditional mysteries, and while this book is neither, it walks right up to the worst of the mud and doesn’t get mired in explicit detail. The idea was to deal with the horror of sex trafficking without spelling it out.

Two early cultivators:

Peg Brantley’s TRAFFICKED is a heartbreaker, a thriller, and a hair-raising education, all at once. I wish I hadn’t already read it, so I could read it for the first time again. — Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty crime novels

The scourge of human trafficking is worldwide; yet, most Americans clutch the idea that it couldn’t possibly exist here.  Peg Brantley’s chillingly honest, gritty novel moves readers to empathize with lives shattered by modern-day slavery.  Through an accessible, awareness-raising narrative, Brantley spotlights a foul, hidden human crisis.  In Americans’ own back yard, not only can trafficking happen, it does.  — Susanne E. Jalbert, Ph.D., Activist

The bloom:

 

TRAFFICKEDfront

 

The dirt:

Sex trafficking.

Not Thailand. Or the Philippines. Or Russia.

America.

Rich or poor, black or white, girls disappear across this country every day, pulled into the nightmarish world of prostitution and drugs.

Mex Anderson is back, tasked with finding three missing girls before it’s too late. Three girls. Three girls who could live in your town, your neighborhood, or in your own home.

Jayla Imani Thomas is fifteen. A smart kid from a poor part of town who has to fend for herself. Jayla is headed for college and a better life than her mother had.

Alexis Emily Halston is seventeen. Money provides everything she wants or needs except functional parents. Alexis has the world by the tail and she knows it.

Olivia Emma Campbell is twelve. She’s a middle child who dreams of being a veterinarian when she grows up. But right now “Livvy” just wants someone to notice her, maybe even to love her.

Caught up in a cruel system fueled by lust and money, all three young women must find the courage within themselves to survive. And Mex must come to terms with his own loss and face his demons head on—or he might not have the strength to save them.

 

TRAFFICKED is now available for pre-order.

 

It’s all better with friends.

Cultivating Clues

Clues are seeds the author cultivates in the reader.

Some seeds start tiny and grow throughout the story, blooming at just the right moment. Others turn into weeds meant to distract the reader from the truth.

There’s always that scene in mysteries where the author initially plants seeds, usually buried in a detailed description of the crime scene and/or murder victim. There’s enough of a spotlight on said scene that the reader knows there’s a key clue being sewn.

So, Mysteristas, let’s put on our sleuthing hats and play a little game!

Below is a passage from The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which I happened to have read recently. Hidden in the passage is a key detail that later helps Miss Marple crack the case. Can you spot the clue?

Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening dress of white spangled satin. The face was heavily made-up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash. The fingernails were enameled in a deep blood-red and so were the toenails in their cheap silver sandal shoes. It was a cheap, tawdry, flamboyant figure—most incongruous in the solid old-fashioned comfort of Colonel Bantry’s library.

Do you see it? Probably not, unless you’re some sort of Sherlockian mastermind, but how about after one more scene where the seed starts sprouting…

“Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”

For Miss Marple had attained fame by her ability to link up trivial village happenings with graver problems in such a way as to throw light upon the latter.

“No,” said Miss Marple thoughtfully, “I can’t say that it does—not at the moment. I was reminded a little of Mrs. Chetty’s youngest—Edie, you know—but I think that was just because this poor girl bit her nails and her front teeth stuck out a little. Nothing more than that. And, of course,” went on Miss Marple, pursuing the parallel further, “Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery, too.”

“You mean her dress?” said Miss Bantry.

“Yes, a very tawdry satin—poor quality.”

 We’re slowly honing in on the important clue, but there are still some pesky weeds to sort through…

“See, it’s a fingernail. Her fingernail! I’m going to label it Fingernail of the Murdered Woman and take it back to school. It’s a good souvenir, don’t you think?”

“Where did you get it?” asked Miss Marple.

“Well, it was a bit of luck, really. Because, of course, I didn’t know she was going to be murdered then. It was before dinner last night. Ruby caught her nail in Josie’s shawl and it tore it. Mums cut if off for her and gave it to me and said put it in the wastepaper basket, and I meant to, but I put it in my pocket instead, and this morning I remembered and looked to see if it was still there and it was, so now I’ve got it as a souvenir.”

Ah, now the flower—er clue—is starting to take shape! And one final scene:

“But, of course, really, in my mind, I knew. You couldn’t get away, could you, from those bitten nails?” [said Miss Marple]

“Nails?” said Sir Henry. “But she tore her nail and cut the others.”

“Nonsense,” said Miss Marple. “Bitten nails and close cut nails are quite different! Nobody could mistake them who knew anything about girl’s nails—very ugly, bitten nails, as I always tell the girls in my class. Those nails, you see, were a fact. And they could only mean one thing. The body in Colonel Bantry’s library wasn’t Ruby Keene at all.”

The fingernails! We’re directed to the murder victim’s fingernails from the get-go, and then the seed sprouts and continues growing throughout the story. References are continually made to those nails, but it takes time, and a brilliant storyteller, for us to realize how the puzzle fits together. 

When were you able to figure out which clue was important? Do you make note of the initial scene where clues are sewn?

Before the Seed

“Before the seed there comes the thought of bloom.”
–  E. B. White

There are times when I’m perusing news of various book launches, contract awards, or other delightful writerly news shared by friends, acquaintances, or authors I’ve never met. And I dream. I dream of what the cover of my first published novel might look like, of having some sort of major signing, or speaking at a major conference (although that last one comes with a mix of excitement and terror, in equal parts). The dreams can be about a brilliant, ground-breaking plot that has everyone talking for years, or a series that readers simply can’t get enough of. Sometimes they’re realistic, and most of the time they’re not, but that’s okay; dreams should be big, and bold, and sparkly bright.

I think of how my writing ideas can bloom into a reality of exciting events and the sharing of my own delightfully good news. Of course, dreams do not become reality without hard work, a significant investment of time and effort, and a willingness to simply keep trying. Seeds must be planted in the proper soil and location, watered, and so forth. I love digging my hands into rich earth, watering my new plants, and waiting anxiously for them to bloom. Likewise, I love starting a new story and having absolutely no idea what it might turn into–a short story, a novel, or often nothing at all.

But that’s okay, too. When we sink the seeds into the soil, we use more than we will need as plants. As the seeds sprout into seedlings, we thin them out, keeping fewer than sprouted. We might move them into bigger pots or a garden, and more still will be eaten or not get enough sun, and only the heartiest will survive to the point of blooming.

My ideas kind of work the same way. I have lots of them. Sometimes I write a paragraph before I get bored, sometimes a few pages. But then there are the ones that bloom. Big, bold, and there to be enjoyed until it’s time to plant another batch of seeds.