Villains – one of my favorite things to write.

Type the word villain into Google and here is what you see: villain: noun: (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot. The definition sent chills up my spine. Google gets it! Love it when life works with me—don’t you? The only thing that would make it better is a gif of Snidely Whiplash twirling his mustaches. Cue the eyeroll and the cheesy music.

I’m a pantser (and I’m trying to fix that because it makes my life hard). When I start a novel, I know two things. My point of view character—I write a series—and the circumstances of a death. In the current WIP I have a dead man found without a mark on him in a car in an isolated area of rural Miami-Dade County. He’s in front of a group of houses that look like futuristic pods abandoned for years and due to be demolished. Last known use of the houses, any illegal activity you can think of, including meth lab and waiting room for air drop of certain illegal substances from foreign countries.

There’s the setup. I have an idea of a cast of characters that accompany this scenario too. Right now, I know five pivotal characters in addition to my protagonist, her boyfriend, and her best friend (who happens to be the sister of the dead man). Any one of them could be the villain. “What,” you say. “Even the protagonist?” Sure. The villain doesn’t have to be the killer. The villain needs only have a dark enough side to incite the death.

Everyone has a villainous side. No one is immune. The fun part of writing characters is digging until you find it. Peeling away those protective layers of civilization until the primitive core of each character is exposed then covering up the hideous bubbling cauldron of emotion before it escapes is a writer’s job. The character’s secret may be safe with the writer, or not depending on the particular circumstances of the crime.

Writers are watchers. The raised voice, the change in pitch during a discussion between friends or family members, the body language that accompanies the words, the way a driver reacts when another pulls in front of him, all of these are noted and used. Mini-studies in human nature and individual tipping points. Villainy on a small (and sometimes large) scale demonstrated on a daily basis. All of those get woven into the fabric of characters until they become complete human beings on the page.

It’s important to me that my villains are participating characters in the story– not Jack in the Box jump ups at the end of the novel. I want my readers to have a relationship with them throughout the book. Now that I have a handful of well-rounded named characters, the fun begins. I outline a series of traits (usually three or four) and give each character motive, means, and opportunity. Each character gets their own mini crime story and their own alibi. No character gets an ending. That comes later. It’s fun to watch them point fingers at each other or disavow any knowledge of the crime. All the red herrings in a row. This is where my villains are apt to get cut if they can’t support the story. No saints allowed. Viable suspects only.

If I’m feeling particularly wronged by someone, I’ll write in a special character. Like the idiot whose sense of entitlement led him to cut me off on a narrow two-lane bridge over a canal because he was too important to wait for the light and nearly drove me off the road into the water below—not that I’m still upset about it. Which means, I get to give some of my villainous emotions to a character or two! Very cathartic.

Be careful what you do—you might end up in my book!

Writers – do you enjoy writing villains?

Readers – do you enjoy reading the villains or the good guys and do you want the villains to be characters throughout the book or just guests with cameos?

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Late at Night

Opportunity comes to those who hunt the weak and use the cover of darkness to hide what daylight would expose.  A quick shake of a head and seekers follow a seedy character into an alley. Money changes hands. Sweaty palms meet, swapping green for clear vials filled with powder or plastic envelopes filled with nameless tablets.

The strike of a match briefly illuminates a rough face exposing a hawk-like eyes. A burst of raucous laughter accompanies the acrid smell of stale booze as a man stumbles out of a bar. He wraps his arms around the woman at his side and calls goodbyes to his friends behind him as he weaves his way down the sidewalk. The woman provides both ballast and anchor. The watcher falls in behind him, taking discrete photos with his phone as the pair stop outside a door. She fumbles for a key while he covers her in sloppy kisses. The stranger walks on past. Night covering his face, unable to cover their indiscretions.

Late at night three people sit in a car. They are waiting for 1:10 AM. That’s when the last security light goes out in the targeted McMansion. Facebook told them the owners were on a cruise. At 1:15 they pick up the tools of their trade, slide through the fence gate and pick the back-door lock. Fifteen minutes before the police arrive. Fifteen minutes, enough time to empty the house of electronics and good stuff. Thanks Facebook, for the pictures and for the renovationdetails.

Night is yeast for the criminal mind. The blurring of reality, the uncertainly of detail. The fear of the witness wondering if someone they didn’t see was watching them.

Hunters love the dark for the advantages it gives. The hunted… not so much.

Night raises the stakes without description or dialogue. For the writer and the reader, it increases tension and conflict. Midnight, the clock strikes twelve.

VENI, VIDI, VICI by Kait Carson (with thanks to Julius Caesar)

This year my goal has been to try new things, take different paths and see where they lead me as a writer, a paralegal and as a person. One of those paths has lead me full circle back to the 1960s and my days of meditation.

Meditation is making a huge comeback. It’s been retooled and updated, and now it’s called mindfulness, but no matter what you call it, the concept is the same. My New Year’s gift to myself was to purchase an app called Headspace. I did the intro, and when I got to the part where I could select my own bundles, I opted for thirty days of creativity training.

What in the Sam Hill, you might ask does this have to do with our theme of vindication? How does one go from mindfulness to vindication? Easy peasy as my Fitbit tells me daily when I make my step goal. Last night I struggled with what to possibly write about the topic of vindication. This morning, before work, I fit in my ten minutes of meditation, freed my mind, let it roam, and at the end of the session, bright as neon lights, the words Veni Vidi, Vici were dancing before my eyes. They looked like some kind of ancient Latin Vegas kick line après a visit from Bacchus. It was kind of fun to watch, to tell the truth.

In fact, I realized, that’s the perfect description of the three-act structure.

I came: Meet the protagonist, set up the story, introduce the characters, stir the pot and see what happens.

I saw: Watch the plot begin to boil. Here’s where the action happens, the true story. Everything comes together. The protagonist is gathering clues, chasing red herrings, weighing the evidence, seeing what works, discarding what doesn’t.

I conquered: The story comes together, the protagonist has the story well in hand, the end is in sight and the goal accomplished.

Veni, Vidi, Vici. An outline in three words. To quote another Ceasarism – Alea jacta est. The die is cast, the outline has begun!

What do you think writers and readers, have I crossed the Rubicon or have I welcomed Brutus into my storytelling army?

Happy 4th of July!

Our theme this month is the British Invasion. My first thought when I heard that, was the Beatles versus Elvis. Then I remembered, this is about writing, not music. But just in case you were wondering, I was a Beatles fan.

Although I understand the concept of a British invasion, I’m not sure it relates to mysteries. Especially cozy mysteries. Like much between the UK and the US, melting pot might be a better description. The Brits contributed the cozy and the police procedural while the Americans gave the dark and gritty noir. Somewhere in the middle of the great Atlantic pond the styles of Dame Agatha and Dashiell Hammett met and mixed and the modern mystery genre was born. Not so much an invasion as a love match.

Like most mystery fans my introduction to mysteries came at the hands of Dame Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express swept me into a whole new world and I quickly devoured all that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple had to offer. It didn’t take too long before I was seeking out other English writers. I discovered Cordelia Gray, P.D. James’s first sleuth. Poor Cordelia only had two books, I always hoped there would be more. When the author introduced Adam Dalglish I was disappointed, but I learned to love him too. Finding P.D. James set me off on a hunt for other English writers and I quickly found Reginald Hill, Ruth Randell, and Colin Dexter. Heady company for an Anglophile!

It seems I wasn’t alone in my attraction to all things mysterious and British. American writers like Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George were cutting new ground at the same time. They were writing British police procedurals despite the inherent handicap of being American. It’s long been common knowledge that the United Kingdom and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. For the most part, they manage to pull it off. It cannot be easy.

The British mystery has made inroads, but we’ve not yet been overtaken by the British style of writing. The pacing of an English mystery is different. The murder comes later. The reader has an opportunity to get to know not only the villain but the victim. The body drops but much later. The reader is invested in all of the characters, creating a more character driven than plot driven story. In an American-style mystery, the body drops in the first few pages. The reader learns of the victim secondhand and so has less of an investment in the deceased. The stories are more plot driven.

Dame Agatha and Dashiell would be proud of the way their offspring have developed. The mystery like much else since 1776 has developed into a unique Anglo-American fusion with just enough difference for each side to continue to claim it as their own.

Writers do you find you tend to write more towards the UK or the US side of the page.

Readers do you prefer the UK or the US style of mystery.

 

Grumpy Fries and Crazy Lies Part Deux

“Maybe I’ve been hitting the bricks myself.” He paused long enough to crook his index finger under my chin.

While I struggled to get my blood pressure out of the stratosphere he continued in a voice so soft I nearly missed his words over the pounding in my ears, “You’ve heard of the Brickyard?”

“But that’s, but, that in…” I sputtered like a cold engine on a frigid morning. “Indianapolis.”

He tapped the tip of my nose with his finger, winked, and said, “Smart girl. Tell me if you think of anything else.” Then he turned and walked toward Grumpy’s house.

Taking my life, and maybe my liberty, in my hands again, I leaned as far over the dratted tape as I dared. He’d touched me. Twice. And I swore never to wash that particular spot on my nose or chin again.

A shiver coursed through me and I remembered the first and last time I’d met the stellar Sterling Spreadbury. It was the night I’d gotten the strange letter from my ex Aloysius Everslam. I’d just sat at my computer, promised myself I’d dump the jerk via the Bill Gates express when the letter slot in the door jangled. I mean, it was ten at night. Who gets mail at ten at night? Well, there it was, a letter in his bold, upright, thrusting, handwriting. I slit the thing open with a steak knife. The words that met my eyes meant for someone else. The salutation read Dear…

“You okay, Persephone? You shivered?”

Pulled from the swirl of my memories I recognized my neighbor standing next to me, the one who made the late delivery. I hadn’t heard her approach. What else had I missed? “Sorry, I…”

“That cop will do it to you. What a hunk.” Merry Goosebury sighed. “Remember how he got to the bottom of that horrible letter? The one in the envelope addressed to you?” At my nod, she gave me a knowing look, poked my shoulder, and said, “Yummy.”

Merry’s poke nearly toppled me from the perch atop my shoes. “You coulda had him then. Don’t miss out this time.” She jerked her chin over her shoulder. “Check out the great car. Bet he catches all the speeders. Think they give him a cut of the ticket fees?”

That was a road I didn’t want to travel. I drew myself up to my full height, plus four inches, and said, “Poor Mr. Fries. Did you hear anything suspicious? I can’t believe this could happen in our neighborhood. And two shoes? What a mystery.”

The look in her eyes tipped me off. Something was going on. Something important. Had I missed something slaving away over my deadline while my neighbor died? Did I deserve to be the last one to know?

“There was an odd sound last night, and a roar. It woke me. Like a rocket ship landing or something.” Merry gave a dismissive wave and wiped a trickle of perspiration from her face with a tissue she pulled from her sleeve. “It was probably nothing. Since they changed the flight path for the Snodgrass International Airport. We’ve even had sonic booms.”

The roar, that was Merry’s rocket ship landing. It was so hot last night I had the window open. I’d heard it too. It pulled me out of my deadline-induced semi-coma. It annoyed me. Here I was trying to get my words right and some idiot with a glasspack muffler was turning my street into a race course… my head slewed around so fast I nearly got whiplash and my sweatshirt slid the full way down to my elbow revealing more of Persephone than I felt comfortable with.

What did that hot red Maserati sound like on acceleration?

Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

I looked the quote up. Turns out it’s a proverb, not a quote from a poem as I had first thought. Somehow, I had expected to find the line came from a poem by Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau. Instead, the phrase is the perfect metaphor for the writing life.

There’s an oak tree in my side yard the arborist tells me is 500 years old. I find the concept hard to wrap my head around. But who am I to argue with and arborist? If he is right, then this tree was a sapling when the Calusa Indians settled this area in 1500. A great oak from a little acorn.

Writing stories is similar. It’s the tiny seed, the first event, that gives birth to 100,000 words. Rarely does the idea for a book or story spring full-blown into the writer’s mind, or this writer’s mind at least. Often, the idea is triggered by a tidbit of conversation overheard in a restaurant, or a leading edge of a news story, or headline half read from a newspaper. Nothing concrete, nothing complete, merely a wisp of something that sparks the imagination. A plastic bag floating out of the window of the submerged wreck was the seed that gave rise to the scenario that grew into Death by Blue Water. The plastic bag became a hand, the hand was attached to a murder victim. The story was born.

As with any seed, the gardener’s job is to plant and nurture it. Leaves and branches of new ideas sprout from the main stalk filling out the story. The author, like the gardener, initially lets the story and the characters decide their own avenues of growth. Branches sprout and seem vigorous for a while, then die out, or a strong branch may grow from an unexpected limb and cross the main trunk. The author, plotter or pantser, follows the story and keeps an eye on these offshoots not yet trying to reign it in. In the end the author returns to the story picture and looking at the whole, prunes away excess words, dead branches, and unimportant (although sometimes much loved) storylines, to leave only the vibrant, living, story behind. From the small germ of an idea a solid and strong story tree has grown.

Writers, are you surprised by the route your ideas have taken?

Readers, are you surprised to learn the seeds that have sparked your favorite books?

Warning Will Robinson, Blog Stuff Ahead: by Kait Carson

Sometimes it’s hard to go first when you’re writing a themed blog. I always want to know what other folks are writing about. How my blog sisters will approach the theme. What will catch their fancy? Inquiring minds what to know. Then again, going early allows me to set the bar, a bit, and maybe the tenor of the theme—to a certain extent. That part is fun.

This month’s theme is humor and laughter. The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the calendar was Robin Williams in his Patch Adams costume. Remember him? The doctor who used humor to treat his patients? Then I remembered Robin Williams’s tragic end. The fine line between comedy and pathos.

OK, tuck that away and turn to books. Humorous books. Laugh out loud funny books. I live in Florida. Carl Hiaasen springs to mind – then there is Dave Barry. Oh my. Yes, both are hysterical. Carl writes mysteries of course. Dave. Well, he writes. I still have an article Dave wrote after Hurricane Andrew (1992) where he happened to mention that if Bryan Norcross (weathercaster extraordinaire) happened to suggest we pull our dirty underwear over our heads and wear it outside to avoid another hurricane, all of South Florida would be thusly attired. All of South Florida laughed hysterically at the suggestion. Then we contemplated our cleanest pair of dirty undies in case the suggestion was made.

Carl’s books always have characters that I know I’ve met in real life if only I could remember where. In the 1980s the Dade (we hadn’t become Miami-Dade yet) County Chamber of Commerce launched an ad campaign that touted “the rules are different here.” Floridians, especially transplanted Floridians, took the campaign to heart and maybe massaged it to mean the rules don’t exist here. Carl exploits that very natural mistake. I mean, anyone could see how it could happen. Right? Humorous writing. When you dissect it you discover that it’s merely reality, from a sideways slant.

Sounds so simple. Some cozy writers do it so well. Janet Evanovich and own Diane Vallere to name two make it look so easy. I’ve tried. Won’t work. Anyone like bread without yeast. That’s how my humor writing comes off. Which is strange. Because in real life—I’m funny. My natural viewpoint is slightly left of center (NOT a political statement but a way of looking at things from a different perspective). However, when I write it—I feel the need to explain. See the previous statement. SO – hats off to the humor writers. They give us the gift of natural laughter and lighten our daily life. What’s more, done well, it looks so easy.

Oh, the Robbie comment. Anyone ever wonder what happened to Robbie the Robot? Well, this is supposed to be a true story, but it’s funny, and maybe true. A Tennessee, or maybe Kentucky, bar owner bought Robbie at auction. He had him in the pickup bed of his truck and was driving him to the bar. Somewhere between the auction and home, the driver was in a wreck and Robbie flew into a ditch. When the paramedics and the police arrived, the bar owners was concerned and kept talking about the robot in the ditch…the rest, as they say, is local legend, but it all worked out well, and now, I understand, you and raise a glass with Robbie in Tennessee, or maybe Kentucky, and the first responders drink for free.

Don’t you love a dash of lightness in the day? I do.