If I Knew Then….

If it’s so good to know, why didn’t Merlin just tell Arthur what the future held for him in Once and Future King and be done with it?

Because there would be no story.

It’s the story that is important. The ending is only one part of the story. I have heard of people who read the end of the mystery first. I do not. I want to play the puzzle that the author spent a year plus of his or her life constructing for me. But I do sometimes re-read a mystery in order to study how that writer exposed and buried the clues.

Still the puzzle is only one part of the mystery story. There is the thrill of adventure. There are character arcs. We want the characters to get what they deserve whether it’s happy-ever-after or a comeuppance. I love surprises. I love the escape. Sometimes there is exposure to a new point-of-view on something that is germane to our times and I like seeing how other people think.

Girl on a Train was a big hit even though the ultimate question (“Is she going to get murdered for sticking her nose in to other people’s business?”) really wasn’t at stake at all. Unless it became apparent early that she was telling the story from beyond the grave, we knew she wasn’t going to get killed. So the thriller-style ending didn’t work for me. I liked the book otherwise. The author tracked the downward spiral of the protagonist’s alcoholism vividly.

At times, I feel like the author tried, and failed, to manipulate me by posing a mortal threat that is obviously no threat at all. Even as I watch Star Trek with my 12 year old grandson and it looks like one of the crew is in some mortal danger, he’s learned from me not to worry if the crew member is a star of the show. That actor has a contract and he’ll outlive the instant danger to appear in the next episode. Not so for the redshirts, of course, those sad unnamed crew members that get vaporized by some hostile alien. Even so, every episode is a ripping good story so I watch them.

Adrian McKinty successfully played with the mortal-threat-to-the-progat stakes in his last book in the Sean Duffy Series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. He opened with bad guys taking Duffy out into the woods to be shot. The scene stops just when Duffy is pretty sure there is no way out. The next scene starts with the backstory and the book spools out the events leading up to this climactic scene. Added to the suspense was my expectation that this would be the last Duffy book. He could get shot. Authors have killed off their sleuths before to be done with them. Conan Doyle killed Sherlock. Dame Agatha killed Poirot.

But you won’t hear it from me. If you want to know if Duffy dies, buy the book.

 

 

I Just Didn’t Get It

Picture it: San Francisco, 1977. My best friend and I had just graduated from college with degrees in broadcasting. She got a job at a little start-up cable company as a production assistant where they were making “made-for-TV” movies. I didn’t get it. What was cable TV?

At the time, television was broadcasted through the air by three major networks. For free. These networks all aired talk shows in the morning, soap operas until mid-afternoon, some game shows and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows until dinner, news, prime-time dramas and comedies but it was mostly cop shows (Kojak and Streets of San Francisco were big), more news and then more talk shows and the went off the air around 1 AM. If the networks wanted to air a made-for-TV movie, they made it themselves and it was usually horrible.  It didn’t happen much.

Who was going to pay for some independent production company to make movies? How was this company going to sell their movies? I didn’t get it. So, I got a job at a little sound recording company while my best friend kept working at HBO.

While I was at the little sound recording company, a couple of young guys — both named Steve — in jeans, pressed shirts and very white tennis shoes came in to talk to the boss about a job. My boss said they were going to be rich. The chief engineer told me they had invented a computer people could have in their homes.

At the time, all I knew about computers was that they were huge machines with big rolls of fat tape spinning through them and that NASA’s computers were so big, they took up an entire room.

“Why would I want a computer in my house,” I asked the engineer. “To get information,” he said. “I can go to the library for information,” I said. “I don’t get it.”

And that was my brush with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the creators of Apple.

Then I decided my career in media wasn’t going anywhere, so I went to law school. While I was in law school, my brother-in-law asked me to hurry up and finish so I could come work for him at his little start-up gaming company in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “Woo-hoo,” I thought to myself sarcastically. I’d been to Lake Geneva. It was over a hundred miles from urban anywhere. And it had this odd little anomaly: there was absolutely no one else there my age. There were lots of people older than me and there were lots of children and sarcastic teenagers, but I didn’t see anyone I’d want to hang out with other than the family. So, I passed.

What was the name of my brother-in-law’s game, you ask?

Dungeons & Dragons.

 

 

Me, Myself and I

This morning as I lay in bed bargaining with myself about what could be postponed in favor of continuing to lay in bed listening to the silence, it occurred to me what a huge portion of our fictional journeys seek discovery of self.

Is that not the purpose of the character arc?  We meet the character living a life under normal circumstances, like so many of us do IRL (in real life) going from one mundane task to the next: drive kid to school, office, pick up kid, get dinner on, load dishwasher, fold laundry.

Then the inciting event occurs, a crisis in that person’s life. What are all the possible things it could mean to her? She looks at it from this angle and that angle. Her mother, her husband and her best friend all give their opinions, sometimes unsolicited, sometimes unwelcomed. She mulls over what feels right and what does not. She mulls over whether she will passively accept the event or whether she will take action.

In a complex story like Liane Moriarty’s Truly, Madly, Guilty, there are seven point-of-view characters, three married couples and a teenager, who experience the same inciting event and spend the book hashing it out. Will the marriages survive? If not, is that a good thing?

(Having been thrice married myself, I often say that the divorce WAS the happy ending.)

Once the POV character sorts out the meaning of the event and her actions in response, is she a different person leading a different life, is she the same person, or is she the same person more realized? What does the mundane look like to her after it’s all said and done.

 

Anticipation

Every time I think about our theme of the month (relationships), I hear Carly Simon sing “Anticipation”. I’m sure it makes sense somewhere deep in my psyche, probably because I was in high school when the song was popular and relationships were ever so painful then.

So now, a few decades later, I’m listening to Benjamin Black’s A Death in Summer. I am so amazed at this book, I began listening to it again immediately after the first listen. Now that I know Who Did It and the truth behind all the secrets, it’s fascinating to see how Black seeds and obscures his clues.

Not that it’s a clever puzzle; it isn’t. But Black’s writing is on another level. From his first sentence in a scene to the last, every word, every phrase, every sentence has purpose and it flows in a pace that is just right.

There are scenes reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film, subtle and filled with tiny details but each detail develops the characters or plot like the scene early in the book where Inspector Hackett is interviewing the grieving widow and the farm manager in the kitchen. There is a fourth character, a uniformed officer, who blends into the background in that scene, green in the gills from having seen his first death-by-shotgun-to-the-head corpse. Black feathers in tiny details and gorgeous analogies through Hackett’s eyes, which on first pass you think: well, he’s just telling us what the other characters look like; and on second pass, you realize he’s laying out the puzzle.

Black’s books are character-driven, even the mysteries. In every scene, we are evaluating whether a character is telling the truth, or lying, and his/her motivation and how the POV character feels about that plus how the POV character fits this event into his or her life, making sense of his or her own identity and purpose including living in Dublin, Ireland in the 1950’s.

It seems everyone is asking “Why am I in this place? Is there somewhere else I should be?” Maybe it’s just the inheritance from those who stayed behind when so many emigrated, but it never occurred to me that they would be wondering whether they should leave too.

There’s a great first date scene where she hands him a ticket for the bus and he spends a couple of sentences evaluating the significance of how she handed the tickets to him.

And there’s a snow globe that shows up meaningfully in a few scenes but the purpose, or symbolism, of which I never figured out. It may just be another Rosebud (Citizen Kane) kind of thing. I’m open to discussion.

I have been dying to get the paperback, pull out my highlighters and outline it. So, when I heard about the Amazon Smile program from Terrie Moran on Facebook, that was all the excuse I needed to order.

Because this is stuff I am focusing on: not just the mystery puzzle but the people puzzle, how they all fit together. A musician told me once, without a baseline, you don’t have a song. The baseline gives the song structure, like the foundation of a house. These character arcs are the base line of our melodies. Because without a character caring about solving the mystery, there is no story. I am grateful to Black for doing these so well.

 

 

Beginnings

I started a short story the other day and I have been staring at the blank screen, the proverbial blood beading upon my forehead.

I had this great idea for a murder which would fit into Bouchercon’s call for submissions. I have a set-up. I have the murder. And after that, I have nothing.

Nothing.

I’m not saying I have writer’s block. I’m just saying the story isn’t appearing fully formed in my head.

So I’m slogging my way through a paragraph at a time. I figure I’ll just do stream of consciousness until something magical, like a plot twist, happens. After all, you can’t edit a blank page, right?

I’m pretty sure that my favorite scene has no plot point. Not to worry, when I figure out whodunit, I’ll go back and hide a clue in there.

It’s not this way when I write books. The first 15,000 words just flow out of my fingers before I stall out.

The wise and wickedly funny Laurie R. King spoke at the Book Passage Writers Conference earlier this year. She said when she hits a blank spot, she jumps ahead to a scene she knows will be in the book, writes that and goes back and bridges them together.

So, you’re not really writing at the beginning, you’re starting at the end and working backwards.

I’m currently reading Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He kind of writes from the middle working back and forward at the same time, after he gets the story started.

I like that idea too.

So, Mysteristas, do you ever abandon a story? What is the upside/downside of slogging your way to the end?

Wrapping Up 2016: Audiobooks

hps-xmas

I listen to a lot of audiobooks: when I’m trying to rack up those 10,000 steps, when I’m riding my bike, when I’m driving, and when I’m cleaning house (listening to books is the only way I can trick myself into cleaning). In fact, I purchased 52 audiobooks this year. These are some of my favorite authors, books and narrators.

Eoin Colfer is an Irish writer from Wexford, perhaps best known for his middle-grade series, Artemis Fowl. He is frequently narrated by John Keating, one of my favorite narrators, who also narrates for English writers such as Dick Francis. This year, I listened to enjoyed to Plugged and Screwed, two adult mysteries, and Airman, another middle-grade coming-of-age book about a boy who grew up in a castle and fell in love with a princess.

John Banville/Benjamin Black is another Irish author from Wexford. Under the name, John Banville, he writes literary novels. I read The Blue Guitar recently, thin plot but lush exposition. I found myself highlighting quite a bit of it. As Benjamin Black, he writes the Quirke series set in 1950’s Dublin with a protagonist who is a drunken medical examiner, Dr. Quirke. What’s there not to like? The Quirke series, being mysteries, has more plot and less lush exposition but occasionally, he takes your breath away. I read the last one first and the listened to the first one and regret it. I recommend you listen or read them in order. He is also narrated by John Keating.

Code Name Verity by American, now living in Scotland, Elizabeth Wein. I’m still thinking about the two young female British protagonists who find themselves dropped into World War II and become unlikely friends. The characters in this book are so sharply drawn, I wished I had known them in real life.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only just become acquainted with the works of the late Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I listened to one of the books in that series, which has smart and funny comments on writing and publishing, as well as the two Dirk Gently books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul. Like Hitchhikers, the Dirk Gentlys seem like fluffy comedy but Adams was a bright and observant man whose funniest jokes are his shrewdest.

In addition to John Keating, I would listen to anything narrated by Gerard Doyle, who has done many of Stuart Neville’s books and has an uncanny ability to distinguish several different provincial Irish accents, and Hugh Fraser, Captain Hastings in the Poirot series. I just finished listening to Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and loved it.

Happy Holidays and see y’all on the other side of 2016.