Do We Need Fictional Villains When We Have So Many Real Ones?

Yesterday morning I woke to the horrific news about the Las Vegas massacre. I tried to ignore the worst of it even as it swirled around me. But there was no escape.

Yesterday afternoon I abandoned my work on the outline for a new mystery. Even a cozy, light mystery seemed wrong.

This morning I saw on my To Do list that my blog post theme for tomorrow was “Villainy.”

Books, movies, and television are saturated with bad guys, some of whom we even like. Fagin. Beetlejuice. Shere Khan. Moby Dick. Macbeth. All the characters in Shameless.

But how can we write fictional villains when the world is teeming with them, walking invisible among us? Apparently we talk to them, pour their coffee, greet them warmly, sell them guns, movie tickets, and muffins every day.

I’m struggling with this along with most of the rest of the world.

Early this morning, before the sun even hinted at a new dawn, I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw this. I can’t verify anything but the truthiness of it.

what I do is important

“Of course,” I thought. “Of course people need stories to transport them out of their real lives.” And some will risk their life to do so. People need Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler and Harry Potter and Coraline and Madame Bovary and Leopold Bloom and Holden Caulfield and Atticus Finch.

But do we need another murderer? Another Norman Bates? Another Hannibal Lecter? Another Bill Sikes? Another Mr Ripley?

Do we?

And then it came to me.

Yes, we do.

We need the villains so the heroes can win. We need the bad guys to get some kind of comeuppance, whether that’s prison, their eye-for-an-eye death, or just a life spent looking over their shoulder, waiting for whatever avenging shoe will drop and smoosh them.

Unlike real-life, fictional murders are almost always tied up within a few hundred pages, a logical bow waving in the righteous breeze. Our hero figures out what happened, whodunnit, and usually why they dunnit.

Unlike real life.

And we need that.

Don’t we?

 

 

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The Fixer Upper

Pam’s house was a two-story fixer-upper from the 1960s that hadn’t been fixered-up, and probably never would. It was left in my care while she backpacked across Scotland.

Despite her pages and pages of intricate and cryptic instructions — Flip the breaker if you want to run the microwave and the toaster at the same time; When the plumbing farts upstairs, threaten the downstairs toilet with the plunger; Open the kitchen window at 2:40 every other day; Do not, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT water the tree out front. — all I really managed most days was picking up her mail, making sure the refrigerator and liquor cabinet got used to my constant presence, and screwing up her Netflix algorithms by watching my shows. Saturday mornings, I also performed triage on her most tragic houseplants. Some Saturday mornings. Okay, once, but in my defense, I never claimed to be nurturing.

Today unspooled in exactly the same manner as all the rest of my days here. I sprawled on the couch, open bag of chips tucked in next to me, almost-empty baking sheet of now-cold taquitos and chicken fingers on the ratty carpet below me, third bottle of beer on the coffee table in front of me, my hand curled around the Netflix remote.

The sun had set long ago, and I vowed to turn on some lights, in accordance with Rules Number 7 (subsections a – c) and 7A (subsection b) — Turn on the interior lights; living room; bedroom; making sure to rotate locations per random order (See Rules 19-26) and Turn on the exterior lights; particularly spotlight in side yard to keep the burrowing animals to a minimum — just as soon as I got up. But I was only on episode five of my current binge-worthy series, so it might be awhile.

I doubted Rule Number 7 mattered much, anyway. If somebody was desperate enough to break into this dump, having lights shining probably wasn’t going to deter them. And if the basement was any indication, could be the animals were tunneling to get out.

I startled awake. Netflix silently judged me, pulsing the question, “are you still watching?”

What woke me if not the TV? I shifted my weight against the bag of chips, creating a tooth-jolting noise in this utter silence, second only to the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard. I plucked the bag from the couch and dropped it to the baking sheet. A trail of chips and crumbs skittered out.

I didn’t move, listening. There was something very weird about being in someone else’s house late at night. You knew all the little sounds of your own place — the creaks and bangs of the furnace, the exact location of each floor squeak, the sudden rattle of the icemaker. Other people’s houses though, especially fixer-uppers, were enigmas. Loud, creepy enigmas.

My feet swung from the couch and planted themselves on the threadbare rug, clearly more interested in investigating than seemed prudent to the rest of me. Reluctantly, I hauled myself up. Three steps later, paused. A branch against the house? El cheapo ticking clock in one of the upstairs rooms? It sounded like scratching, but that made no sense.

Using the ambient light from the TV, I made my way across the dim room to the torchiere standing in the corner. I twisted the knob, it came off in my hand, and the room blazed with harsh light. Again, I froze, listening.

Definitely scratching.

Oh! The burrowing animals. I giggled at the silliness of my worry and headed for the garage, but not before jamming the knob back on the lamp. Perhaps I’m more nurturing than I thought.

The light switch for the side yard was on the farthest wall of the garage, near the outside door. I flipped on the garage light and made sure the door from the garage to the house was unlocked (because I am a girl who learns her lessons the hard way and hopefully only once). I found myself on tiptoe, sneaking across the garage.

The scratching definitely seemed louder now. Definitely coming from the side yard. Definitely skunk? Raccoon? Opossum?

I silently cursed that I hadn’t checked earlier that the side door was locked. Hell, it wasn’t even closed. If it had been, I could run across the garage, turn the outside light on, and run back inside before some rabid animal rushed me.

Ironically, the idea made me move at half-speed instead of double. I was like one of those lions on the savanna sneaking up on their prey, even though it was prey I decidedly did not want.

As I slowly stretched my fingertips toward the switch, the scratchy, scrabbling sound stopped. I flicked on the light. The side yard lit up like a carnival midway. Something small and covered in dirt vaulted from the hole, rushed away, and crashed into a juniper bush near the street.

Relief and adrenaline energized me. I stepped toward the hole the animal had dug and peered at it. The spotlight so bright it rendered the late night obsolete.

My breath caught and held. Ice coursed through my veins. My internal organs shifted one inch to the right.

The excavation resembled a miniature grave, maybe four feet deep, about three-feet by two. Tiny chaotic footprints muddled the dirt floor and in the scattered dirt above. At the short end of the hole were two perfect child-sized handprints planted in the mounded dirt. Scrawled nearby was a message: Won’t forget.

 * * * * *

So, Readers, I went back and forth about the message at the end. Which do you like better … “won’t forget” or “Pam”?

Whiskers on Kittens

Vindication. Comeuppance. Schadenfreude.

These are a few of my fav-o-rite things!

Admit it. You like them, too. Maybe not as much as brown paper packages tied up with string or raindrops on roses, but still, quite a lot.

Maybe that’s why I like crime fiction so much. With very few exceptions, the white hat wins and the black hat loses. Justice is served. Righteousness triumphs.

Unlike in real life.

I can’t begin to count all the times I’m reading news reports about one crime or another — major or minor, funny or serious — and the complete opposite outcome happens as I want and/or expect.

Have you ever seen a skunk stamp its feet getting ready to spray? That’s exactly how I look when I read such a report. And then I spray. Luckily for my husband it’s words I spew instead of, um, something indelicate.

Or maybe I look like Yosemite Sam.

yosemite-sam.png

 

But it just makes me so grumpy!

cat

Because I’ve lived many, many years now, I know to take a deep breath, sure in the knowledge that my universe will be right once again, just as soon as I pick up my novel … either the mystery I’m reading or the one I’m writing.

Is it just me or do you read mysteries and crime fiction as a way to create some psychological vigilantism in your life?

(I wanted to ask if you knew how many of those exceptions are out there where the bad guy wins in crime fiction, but I can’t figure out how to do so without giving any spoilers! So let’s just say there are fourteen examples. That sounds about right.)

 

The Case of the Boisterous Brits

When I saw the words “British Invasion” on my editorial calendar the other day, I had only one thought — the Beatles.

And then another thought — how will I work the Fab Four into my post on Mysteristas?

Ta da! I give you (and apologize in advance for) “The Case of the Boisterous Brits.” It’s an historical police procedural, set in 1964 Manhattan, mostly in their own words. Picture a grimy interview room with a permanent cloud of old-timey cigarette smoke. A rumpled detective wearing a white dress shirt, sleeves rolled, tie loosened and askew, sits on one side of a 6-foot metal table. Four long-hairs sit across from him. They’re in various states of disarray and sprawl. Feet on the table, chairs tipped back. One has rotated his chair and leans on the back with crossed arms. Three are smiling. All have that nebulous mischievous air about them.

Beatles2.png

* * *

Police detective Les Hipp drummed his fingers on the metal tabletop in the interview room, assessing the four British lads in front of him.

“You’re keeping a zesty beat there, Pops,” one said.

Hipp checked one of the files. “You’re the drummer. Ringo. You keep a zesty beat yourself.”

“I do the zest I can.”

“Are you the best drummer in the world?”

The one with the granny glasses interrupted. “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”

“Which one are you?”

“I’m Eric.”

Hipp consulted his files. “Your haircut is pretty un-American…. John.”

“That’s very observant of you, because I’m not actually American.”

“Are you going to get a haircut anytime soon?” Hipp asked.

“I had one yesterday, “ the unsmiling one said. “I’m George, by the way. The quiet one.”

“What do you call that hairstyle?”

“Arthur.”

“Does it require any special attention?”

“Inattention is the main thing.”

“What excuse do you have for your collar-length hair?”

Paul, George, and Ringo shrugged on cue.

Finally John said, “Well, it just grows out yer head.”

“Love, love me ‘do!” Paul sang.

Hipp tried a different tack. “What’s the biggest threat to your careers, the atom bomb or dandruff?”

“The atom bomb. We’ve already got dandruff,” Ringo said.

Hipp consulted his notes again. “Which of you is bald?”

“We’re all bald,” George said. “And I’m deaf and dumb.”

Hipp stubbed out his fourth cigarette in as many minutes. “How do you feel about teenagers imitating you by wearing Beatles wigs?”

“They’re not imitating us because we don’t wear Beatles wigs,” John said.

“But you just said—”

George signed to Paul who translated. “You don’t look a bit like my mother.”

“What?”

George squinted at the detective. “You don’t. Not a twidge.”

Hipp opened a file and scribbled something so hard he tore the paper. “Where did you get your hair style?”

“From Napoleon. And Julius Caesar. Maybe a German photographer,” Paul said. “We cut it anytime we feel like it. “

“We may do it now,” Ringo added.

George shook his head, and with it, his flowing locks. “No, mate, it was while we were in Germany. I went swimming and when I came out I didn’t have a comb. So my hair just dried. The others liked the way it looked, and there we were, Bob’s your uncle.”

“We’ve told so many lies about it we’ve forgotten.” John hung his head in shame. But when they all snickered, Hipp knew they were mocking both him and his investigation.

“Do you ever think of getting a haircut?” Hipp asked angrily.

“No, luv, do you?” Paul smiled. “Why all these questions about our hair?”

“Because you lot and your mop tops have been implicated in a stampede of teenagers. I’m investigating you for disturbing the peace. Inciting a riot. Hurting my ears.” He leaned in and tried to modulate his voice. “Do you know that when I drove up, a swarm of girls rushed my car. How do you explain this phenomenon?”

“You’re lovely to look at,” John said. The other three nodded.

“Now just a cotton-picking minute.” Hipp banged both hands on the table. “Do you have any political affiliations?”

“No, I don’t even smoke,” Ringo said, taking a deep drag off his cigarette.

“Are you communists?”

“Us, communists?” Paul laughed. “We can’t be communists. We’re the world’s number one capitalists. Imagine us, communists!”

“You’re a real corker, mate.”

“Barmy one, he is.”

“He’s talking bollocks!”

Hipp took a deep calming breath. “What will you do when Beatlemania subsides?”

“Count the money, like good capitalists,” John said.

“Won’t you miss all the adulation from teenage girls? Surely it affects you?”

“When I feel my head start to swell, I look at Ringo and know perfectly well we’re not supermen,” John said.

“What about all the riots you cause? All the crowds, all that screaming? Doesn’t it bother you that you can’t hear what you sing during concerts?”

“No, we don’t mind,” John said. “We’ve got the records at home.”

Paul looked at his watch. “Hey, we’ve talked until two. It’s time for bed.”

George nodded. “It’s been a hard day’s night and I been working like a dog—”

“I should be sleeping like a log,” Ringo added.

Detective Hipp stared at each of them in turn, then methodically arranged and jogged the four files in front of him. “I can’t hold you on this evidence, and you’ve been no help in getting to the bottom of these riots. But if we have to haul you in here again, you’ll have to answer to Captain Maxwell. He will use his silver hammer to—”

“Blimey! His what?” Ringo scrambled to his feet.

“Good day, Sunshine.” George doffed an imaginary cap toward Hipp, then elbowed Ringo out of the way, reaching the door first.

John reached across the table and clasped one hand on Hipp’s shoulder. “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”

Paul gazed straight into the detective’s eyes. “If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I could do, just call on me, and I’ll send it along, with love from me to you.”

“Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.” Hipp slumped in his uncomfortable chair. “But I read the news today—”

“Oh, boy.” John sighed in sympathy. “I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand.” He paused for effect. “You wanna know how I do it?” He waved his arm toward the other three lads crowding the doorway. “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Exhausted, Detective Hipp waved them out the door. He was only waiting for this moment to arrive. He understood now that no matter if their hair was long, short, or nonexistent, they had started a revolution. Imagine!

Paul popped his head back in the room. “I can’t remember how to get out of here. Do we take that long and winding road? Where does it lead again?”

Hipp didn’t respond.

“He’s a real nowhere man,” John whispered.

Beatles1

* * *

I’m so sorry, Uncle Albert. I’m so sorry if I caused you any pain. Really I am. The dialogue is from song lyrics and/or interviews they did with the American press. Except for “twidge.” None of them said that. Research is fun!

So … what’s your favorite Beatles song? Mine might be “In My Life.” Too many faves, of course, but it’s always in the top five. “Blackbird” … “Norwegian Wood” … “Fixing a Hole” … “I’ll Follow the Sun” … “Penny Lane” … “Across the Universe” … and of course “Paperback Writer.” You know, my favorite.

all you need is love.png

 

 

Grumpy Fries and Crazy Lies, part 3

Trying to keep my cool, I turned from Persephone toward the crime scene. A tickly trickle of sweat slid straight down my spine. Odd how her ugly sweatshirt reacted with my trousers. Keep walking, man. Left foot, right foot. You remember. Don’t think about that naked shoulder.

“Hey, Detective.”

I pivoted, disappointed to see it was Merry who beckoned. She leaned languidly against my car, as if getting ready to pole dance with it. The blue rotating light only enhanced the image. Her lips parted and she flicked her tongue, wetting them slowly. She arched her back, spreading her arms wide across the hood. She stroked the red paint in small, intimate circles. She performed a slo-mo twerk, perching ever so lightly when she finished. I wrinkled my nose, but didn’t scold her. It was a red Masarati, after all. And she was only human.

“Take me for a ride later?” If salacious vibes were people, she’d be China.

I willed them not to, but my eyes cut to Persephone. Dammit, eyes. Focus! She tugged at her sweatshirt, concentrating on pulling it up over her lovely shoulder then plucking off some lint. She ignored Merry, but I suspected she awaited my answer. I turned toward the crime scene, but waved back at Merry. “Not this time, darlin’. I’ll be busy here for a while.”

Kicking myself for leaving Persephone with the idea that there had been a previous jaunt with Merry in the Masarati, I shook loose of all lusty thoughts, past and present. And I hoped she wouldn’t get fingerprints — or any other kind — on my car.

The officers on scene stared at Merry and/or the Masarati as I made my way toward the investigation. I twinged at the memory of how I came into possession of my sweet, red ride. Was it my fault those keys were just laying around after that mess I cleaned up for the Senator? The fact nobody questioned me about it later said more about them than it did me. Clearly, everyone assumed it was payment for a job well done. And if not, it should have been. That job was so well done it could have been a forgotten porterhouse.

But here was another job. No clean up necessary. Just investigation. A patrol officer stood guard over a right shoe on the walkway. I squatted down on the walkway to inspect it.

“We think it’s the victim’s,” he said.

“You think it is? Shouldn’t you know?” He began to answer me, but I cut him off with an impatient wave. A cheap K-Mart hunter green canvas slip-on. No blood. No unusual scuffs. In fact, it looked brand new, like it had never been walked in. The officer pointed toward another shoe on the porch. We moved toward it. He stood while I again squatted. I frowned and twitched my chin up at the officer but he simply shrugged. The shoe didn’t respond either, despite my questions.

Why was this left shoe a Brooks Brothers patent leather lace-up? And why was it covered in applesauce and silver glitter?

I stared at it until my legs cramped. Then I stood. “Where’s the victim?” The officer pointed toward the back yard and I started for it.

“Detective? You’ll want to see this first.”

I followed him across the porch. He waved an arm at the door then took a giant step to the right, clearly not wanting to go inside again. I caught his eye, but he immediately glanced away. I paused, took a deep breath, and readied myself for what I might find in Mr Fries’ charming Victorian bungalow.

The door was ajar and a whiff of smoke curled around my nose.

A Sprinkling of Writerly Seeds

I’m not really a gardener. My husband is, though. He takes delight in nurturing seeds and seedlings until they turn into salad ingredients. He weeds and frets, tries to protect them from hail, bugs, deer, rabbits, skunks, and raccoons. He fails and curses, or succeeds and congratulates himself on his urban farmer skillz.

I just eat the salad.

But I do plant writing seeds.

In the Stone Age — back in 1991 or so — when my kids were little, I quit my corporate job. I stayed home with them but needed an income so I provided daycare for other kids in my home. During two hours of naptime every day, to save my sanity, I went upstairs and wrote personal essays. In my mind, I was the next Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. Reality? Maybe not so much.

But I planted many, many of those essay seeds and finally felt confident enough to send one off to a regional magazine. In return, they sent me a $50 check. It was so much more than money. It was tangible proof that my seeds were sprouting. I bless that editor every day for her vote of confidence.

So I planted some more.

In 1999 or so, my son and I were on the hunt for some historical fiction for boys. It was a meager selection, all of which he’d read. As we were leaving the library, he said, “Why don’t you write one, Mom?”

Hm. An entire book? How might one go about that? Soon after, I stumbled on a one-day conference organized by the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. I met people, I learned, I schmoozed. More seeds.

In 2001 my first book, historical fiction for middle readers, was self-published, back when that was a dirty word and so, so difficult. I made some rookie mistakes like point-of-view shifts and tense shifts (even though I paid for editing … pfft). Plus the world conspired against me and changed the distribution rules I had counted on. Nevertheless, I persisted and hand-sold 5,000 copies of that glorious mess. I also received a letter from a young fan telling me he didn’t like to read until he read my book.

5,001 new sprouts.

Soon after, I discovered writer’s conferences. We are lucky in Colorado that we have three remarkable organizations that put on marvelous, transformative multi-day conferences. We have the Northern CO Writers in Ft Collins, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in Denver, and Pikes Peak Writers in Colorado Springs.

I started attending, soaking up knowledge and friendship from the local writing community. Seeds. I began volunteering at the conferences. More seeds.

And then, like a Miracle [Gro], I was asked to be on the faculty. They might as well have asked if I’d like to be a Broadway star, an ice cream taster, and Pippi Longstocking rolled into one. It was one of the proudest, most exciting moments in my life. I could now reach backward and help pull someone along the publishing path, just like those ahead of me had been pulling and encouraging me for all these years.

During this time I wrote and published seven books — low-calorie cookbooks, a guide based on a workshop I used to do to teach parents how to help their reluctant readers, a book diary, and two cozy mysteries. And I was asked not only to be again on the faculty for the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, but also to emcee the lunches and dinners over the weekend.

My little garden was in full-bloom.

So I expanded it a bit and started attending national fan conventions, like Left Coast Crime. Instead of catering to writers, now readers were the focus. I was involved in a “speed dating” type of activity where a ballroom filled with readers anxiously wanted to hear from the authors moving table-to-table every couple of minutes. I was invited to talk about my first mystery at the New Author Breakfast. More seeds. Heady stuff, even for a sturdy sunflower such as myself.

After years of tossing around seeds — meeting people, learning, teaching — at one of the Left Coast Crime banquets, I sat to the left of the fabulous Jessica Lourey, for no other reason than she seemed fun and I wanted to meet her. We became friends. On her right sat Terri Bischoff, her editor at Midnight Ink. I’d met Terri previously and we had about a gazillion friends in common, so we became friends in real life — IRL — like the kids say.

Soon after this, I had a book rejected that I thought was going to be a slam-dunk. As I was reeling from this defeat, my generous and persistent pal Shannon Baker told me to submit it to Terri. But when I checked the Midnight Ink website, I did not fit the criteria for submissions because I didn’t have an agent, nor was the manuscript requested from a pitch. Shannon waved off my concern, told Terri she should read it, and the next thing I know I had a 3-book contract from Midnight Ink.

Remember all those people ahead of me on the publishing path? They told me now was the time to get an agent and suggested some names. When I started investigating them, guess who was a client of the agent I liked the best? Yep, Jess Lourey. Again, before I really wrapped my head around what was happening, Jess gave me guidance and encouragement. The next day, I had a literary agent.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t sprinkled my writerly seeds over the last — gulp — 25 years.

Some of those seeds were meticulously cultivated and planted exactly where I wanted them. Some I tossed by the hopeful handful. Some fell out of my pocket while I wasn’t paying attention.

But they all landed, sprouted, thrived. A delicious salad of opportunity.

May your seeds provide the same nourishment, both personally and professionally.

 

 

 

 

 

Funny Mysteries

Since we’re exploring the subject of humor and/or laughter this month, I thought I’d tell you something you probably already knew — I like reading funny mysteries. Heck, I like reading funny books, regardless of genre. Big surprise.

In mysteries, these usually show up as cozies, although a quick Google search shows Tim Dorsey as writing “crime capers” and Carl Hiaasen as “satirical fiction” so perhaps I need to expand my lexicon regarding genres. That’s a post for a different day, though.

I’ve been told people like the humor in my books, so I thought I’d do an experiment. I pasted the first chapter of my next book (which I think is fairly funny) into the website I Write Like.

And got Agatha Christie.

badge IWL Agatha Christie

 

 

Hmm.

Then I pasted the text from my blog post about getting ready for spinal surgery  and got Anne Rice.

Double hmm.

While that’s fun, if not a bit perplexing, this Literature Map can actually help you find authors similar to authors you already like, helping you discover someone new to read …

I typed in Agatha Christie …

Lit Map Christie

 

and Anne Rice …

Lit Map Rice

As you can see, I’m nowhere on their map. [Note to self: write more books.]

But look at all the cool authors who are!

And then I tried Janet Evanovich …

Lit Map Evanovich

and Tim Dorsey …

Lit Map Dorsey

Lots of my favorites are in those graphics. And some of my favorites aren’t even on the map yet, like Gretchen Archer (whose books are also listed as crime capers, I just noticed), Jess Lourey’s Murder by Month mysteries, and Jennifer Lancaster.

So, writers … who do you write like?

And readers … who are your favorite funny writers, mysteries or otherwise? And please don’t say me; you’ll just make me blush.