Guest Post: Barbara Howe

Puzzle Pieces and Possibilities

I am a reader, one of those most-sought-after creatures for you writers. I love reading everything, especially this blog. I am better known to you all as “3 no 7.” This nom de plume comes from my everyday life. 3 no 7 is the answer to the question “How many times have I asked you to (fill in blank)? “ and its companion “My answer is still the same as the last 3 no 7 times you asked that question.” I am sure you understand.

As I stated, I am a reader. A reader is not just one who decodes letters and words. A reader is one who becomes immersed in the content of the page. I read everything, but I especially love reading in the mystery/crime/thriller realm. I was trained to be a reader by my mother. My mom read to me–all kinds of books. I think she bought every Little Golden Book that was ever published, and I still have a lot of them today. They were wonderful books; small, just right for little hands with heavy cardboard covers, brightly colored illustrations, and that wonderful gold binding down the edge. They were stories of the ordinary and of the fantastic and exotic.

My father trained me to appreciate mysteries. He sent me on a quest for answers. He started early by giving me simple puzzles; you know the ones, a big shape that does not fit into one hole but fits nicely into a different one. A puzzle really is a mystery without a story. He made me puzzles out of wood. In fact he still makes wood puzzles today, trees that stand, piggy banks that fit together then come apart to get the money, and boxes that seem to have no possible way to come apart until all at once they are in a dozen pieces. All these are just visual mysteries, one little step down the road to crime fiction and edge-of-the-seat thrillers.

My father trained me to expect the unexpected when I read, because he created the unexpected when he read to me. Even those “safe” Little Golden Books were transformed into mysteries as he read them. Unlike my mother who read the printed page with feeling and expression, he did not read the printed page; he created a story about the pictures. The story was almost the printed-page story, but it was different, unexpected, surprising. (He still does this with his grandkids, by the way.) I learned to start with the familiar but to expect the unexpected, to anticipate the surprising, to look beyond the obvious, to never take the ending for granted, and to love mysteries.

As an (adult) reader, I look at every story as a pile of puzzle pieces dumped into a book, which I assemble as I read. Each page is a part of a greater story and yet is a story itself. I turn over each piece of the puzzle as it tumbles off the pages and into my mind. I anticipate where a piece might fit, based on what I have read. I try it this way and that way. I assemble it with the other pieces that I have collected. I accept that these pieces might be just what they seem or they may fit together in an entirely different way. If one piece does not quite fit, I might try to smash it together with another piece. But I know that, in the end, all the pieces will fit nicely, if it is a well-written book.

And now, dear writers, I have come to your part–the writing. I know you are writing for me. You want me; you need me. After all, I am the one who will shell out my hard earned cash (or credit card) to buy what you have created. So, now what do I want? I want you to craft a story, just like my dad did, that will be unexpected. I want your tale to have many puzzle pieces with character and substance, pieces that will hint at the whole picture without giving away too many secrets, pieces that will look beyond the obvious. I anticipate a complex storyline that, like my dad’s wooden box, will seem to have no solution, but then suddenly, like the box, will send all the answers tumbling out.

You, as writers, have a much more daunting task than I have as a reader. I want to assure you that I (and all readers) appreciate your toils, your labor to create just for me, a novel, a mystery, a puzzle, to be questioned, to be examined, to be enjoyed. You write on and I’ll read on, together, just from different sides of the puzzle box.

Now, dear writers, it’s your turn. What made you pick mysteries to write instead some other genre?

***

Hi, my name is Barbara Howe, and I am a reader, so writing is not my usual avocation.

I read what others, you all, have written. I read every day, starting with the newspaper. (Oh, and you do not want to be on the receiving end of the phone call if my paper is missing, wet, or late; trust me.) I read the little “back page” stories in the paper, not just the front page. Those little stories really show the character, both good and bad, of the people who live around me. I sometimes look at a story and try to imagine how some of you would incorporate that event into a mystery book. Do you writers do that?

I make time for reading when many people just give reading lip service. I attended a community meeting and happened to be sitting at the table with city officials (Next time I will change tables.) One official asked me what I was going to do with some time off that I had coming up. I, of course replied that I would be reading. He replied, “People always say that and no one does it.” “Ha,” I answered. “I have books all picked out to read.” He added “People always say that, but never do it. I have a shelf full of books, but I never read them.” Needless to say, I DID read my books, and the next time I happened to see this official at (yet another) meeting, I reminded him that SOME people are passionate about reading and do make reading a priority.

You all write; I read. We go well together. We are different faces of the same coin.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Post: Barbara Howe”

  1. Love this in so many ways! Especially, the way you’ve shown your love of reading. It’s an addiction, right? I write mysteries simply because they’re my favorite reading. I write what I want to read. Mysteries, I think, are the hardest of all genre to write for all the reasons you have described so well.

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  2. Barbara, it is so good to know your name and I want to be a fly on the wall when you next meet that official! I do have to admit, with some shame, that I have given up on the newspaper for now. Have you ever seen that cartoon with the two people walking down the street and one says, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at war with my desire to stay sane?” That’s me. Except the sports section. I generally read all of that, from the big league team stories, to the coverage of the local high schools. You’re right; the characters are often in those back-page stories.

    I love your analogy of story as puzzle. Yes. Exactly. Why do I write mystery? I’ve tried to write other genres, but dead bodies keep cropping up. I tried to write a romance and there was no spark. When someone asked what I thought I was going to do, I said, “Well, having one of them – or both – find a dead body would spice things up.” Yeah, um… Then I tried to write cozy/amateur sleuth. It wasn’t working. Workshop leaders kept asking, “Why is she doing this? (investigating)” I didn’t have an answer that I believed – how could I expect you to believe it? Then I looked at my shelves, crammed with classics but suspense, procedurals, thrillers. And the light bulb went off.

    I will keep your challenge in mind as I write.

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  3. How lovely to meet you at last, Barabara Howe. I too loved puzzles when I was young but just the ordinary buy-in-the-box jigsaws. Even still once in a while when I want to still my mind, I go buy a new puzzle. After all these years, I ran across one with a missing piece. Truly. You know half the time I’m thinking every puzzle has a missing piece and I’ve been cheated, but not this time and I was so disappointed. Just one missing piece. To answer your question, why did I start writing mysteries instead of some other genre: the easy answer is because I am an attorney and every new case is a mystery, but in truth I think I’m hard-wired to ferret out the unseen and make it all fit. Just like you. Thanks for joining us today.

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  4. Barbara, welcome to Mysteristas. It is wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much for stepping out from behind 3 no 7 and writing for us. I can’t tell you how tickled I am.

    Your childhood sounds much like mine. Reading and storytelling were big parts of our lives, and no one put limits on our reading. Anything but. Puzzles were one of my favorite things, still are, and that includes spacial puzzles and crossword puzzles. But mysteries..I came to them by way of Nancy Drew. By the second book, I was roaming my tiny town and trying to “find a mystery” to solve. I’m not sure what I expected to find, or how I thought I would recognize it, but that’s when I started to make up stories about the things around me, and they had to do with what ifs.

    What if the decorative glass maker had to defend himself. What if he kept a prisoner in his cellar? What if someone locked him in the cellar? What tools would he use to get out? How would it work? Could he heat something hot enough in his glass furnace to melt the basement window and escape? You get the drift. The glass maker worked from an old brick building pushed all the way back in a wooded area next to the river. The place was spooky enough to inspire all sorts of stories.

    Then there was the cave in the riverbank. That was clearly a hideout for robbers. Wasn’t long until I was writing these stories and solving them. And you know how it goes in a mystery, one question leads to another, and another. Kinda like potato chips!

    Thank you so much for joining us.

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  5. Wahoo! It’s wonderful to meet you, Barbara, and learn a little about how you came to love reading. What fabulous parents you enjoyed!

    Years ago I was about to enter a women’s fiction manuscript into a contest. The night before I was going to mail it I was anxious, and it wasn’t the usual anxiety entering contests enduces. It was different. Finally, about four o’clock in the morning, the answer came. What if I won? People would expect me to write women’s fiction when my heart was all about suspense and thrillers. The primary family in that story morphed greatly and became the primary family in THE MISSINGS, my second book.

    The idea for RED TIDE (my first book) was sparked by a little news article I read about a photograph that was found in the cell of a prisoner who had died. The photograph wasn’t of a person or an event or anything that could readily be identified. It was just a place. Why would a man in prison keep a picture of something that couldn’t have any meaning to him? Unless it did…

    Thanks for “coming out of the closet” with us, and thanks for reading.

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  6. I loved reading your post, Barbara, and it’s so nice to have a name to put with all your thoughtful comments! I was an avid reader before becoming a writer (I think you have to be!) and first stumbled into the mystery genre when I got an idea for a cozy that I had to try writing. Now mysteries just feel *right*

    Your puzzle box analogy is fantastic! Especially to describe the agreement between readers and writers of mysteries–that the writer will do their best to stump the reader in a fair way, with enough bread crumbs dropped throughout the story that it all comes together. It’s a challenging balance! Thank you for the reminder to write the unexpected; something I’ll definitely continue to strive for 🙂

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  7. Thanks, all of you for your wonderful comments. You “welcomed” me, but really I have been here for quite a long time — I have just been hiding in plain sight. I have been a mystery to most of you. Diane Vallere told me about this blog, so in a way it’s her fault. If any of you are Facebook friends with Katie Caprero, she and Bear got Katie (the icon for my posts) involved with Facebook , so that’s her fault as well. Just like someone in a mystery book “I didn’t do it! I’m innocent” (There is another whole long, very unusual story about Katie.)

    I also find myself thinking thing like “what would happen if that homeless person with the grimy shopping cart is really a Russian spy” or “What if my favorite pen that I can’t find was really a video recorder and the owner came back and picked it up?” It takes a while to get cleaning and shopping done. I would think that mysteries might be easier to write (of course I’m not a writer) because you can just let things develop in your mind, and anything is possible good guys being bad, bad guys being good, dead people not being dead and every problem being solved in the end. THAT certainly doesn’t happen in real life.

    I really enjoy reading and commenting on Mysteristas, almost as much as I enjoy reading. So, as I often say — you all go back to writing so I’ll have something new to read.

    Write on, read on

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  8. Barbara, so nice to see you as a GUEST on Mysteristas! Thanks for being so good to all of us. Tell Katie that Bear said hello. (He and Tiger are up to something, I’m just not sure what.)

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  9. Barbara,
    You’ are so right, writers and readers are nothing without each other. I learn so much from my readers, whether it’s meeting them at a conferences or if I’m lucky enough to have them email me or write a review. I don’t think I could sit down and finish a book without the likes of you, nor would want to.
    Thank you so much for the post.
    Nancy Cole Silverman

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  10. Barbara, thank you so much for your wonderful post AND for being so kind to us–we appreciate you! Love Little Golden Books–many fond memories of those, too. And this is said so beautifully > “I anticipate a complex storyline that, like my dad’s wooden box, will seem to have no solution, but then suddenly, like the box, will send all the answers tumbling out.” Yes! Your dad sounds very special.

    To answer the question, I write mysteries because, like you, I’ve been an avid reader of them forever, starting with Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, moving through Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney and Agatha Christie, and then just everything I could get my hands on. I love all kinds of books but mysteries hooked me the most with the bonus of keeping me guessing as I’m moving through the story. As the plot unfolds, so does the opportunity for thinking, analyzing, and attempting to solve the puzzle. The kind I am writing now, academic mysteries, have another element that I enjoy: holding up the structures and dynamics of academia for consideration. Since I’ve been in academia most of life, that is very appealing…

    Thanks for your lovely support! And here’s one more question: what are your favorite kind of mysteries? Do you like thriller, suspense, cozy, etc. or all of the above? 🙂

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    1. Thanks Cynthia. I read all — cozy, suspense, thriller, cop, detective — all of them. My taste tends to lean more toward the thriller, crime-laden messy detective or cop variety perhaps because I can read about all that danger while being safe from danger myself — living vicariously through the books. After I read an intense thriller, I “kick back” with a cozy or two to rest my brain.

      I like tight, complex stories without a bunch of hanging threads at the end. I like subtle clues along the way, but also like to be proven wrong. If I know from the first “who did it” I’m done. Unless, of course, everyone knows who did it, and the story moves on from there.

      I like characters who are believably good, bad, or in-between. I want to meet them in the grocery store as long as they are not robbing it.

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