The Last Policeman

My mystery book club recently read The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters.  The first of a trilogy, it’s about a newly promoted detective who stays on the job, even though his colleagues are bailing because everyone is going to die in 6 months when an asteroid hits earth.  

Besides being a fabulous book, it raises some interesting questions.  Some of the members of book club asked why we had chosen a science fiction book.  But is it?  Its premise sounds science-fiction-y, given the looming apocalypse, and Locus, the trade magazine of the science fiction community, had featured several articles about the book.  I was intrigued, since I love science fiction and also write it under another name.  

But this book is more about the investigation into a suspicious death, with the added layers of characters responding to their difficult situation.  And the book won the Edgar Award in 2013 for best paperback original.  This prestigious award is presented by Mystery Writers of America.  So, if professional mystery writers say it’s a mystery, then it’s a mystery.  Case closed.  

But it’s also science fiction.  

I am reminded of another time when an author I know wrote a science fiction mystery and hoped to see it marketed as a mystery.  The book ended up being shelved with science fiction, probably because the author was already established as a science fiction writer.  Any genre can also contain a mystery (and imo, a mystery makes any book better!), but science fiction seems to trump mystery when it comes to cross-genre.   

So I couldn’t wait to find out what my book club of seasoned mystery readers would think of this book.  Several of them had been skeptical at first and wouldn’t have chosen to read it, if not for book club.  As it turned out, all but one loved it.  They focused on the investigation of the case, and the way it unfolded fit their expectations, leaving them satisfied.  Not bad at all, I’d say! 

What do you say?  Do you mind other genre elements in your mysteries?  

Indian Summer

We call it Indian Summer.  Eastern Europeans call it Granny Summer.  Southernmost South Americans call it Little Summer.  

Whatever you call it, it’s officially here in Colorado.  We’ve had our first killing freeze, the tomatoes are done, and now the days are turning warm again.  The air is crisp and clear, and the sky is that intense, electric shade of blue against aspen gold.  It’s the quiet lull, a peaceful interlude of fake summer before the storms of winter hit…maybe as soon as tomorrow.  

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Why do I mention this?  

As a mystery author, I’m always seeking the right weather setting to match the tone of my books.  “‘Twas a dark and stormy night” is a cliche for a good reason.  What better setting than the dark combined with a storm for the tense climax of a mystery story?  There are countless mysteries where some form of a storm threatens in the background as the plot intensifies.  We try to avoid cliches in our books, but really, there’s nothing better than a good old storm.  Tension just doesn’t read the same for a bright and sunny day.  

Unless it’s Indian (or Granny) Summer.  Because…

  1. Looks are deceiving.  
  2. Chill is in the air.  
  3. We know the Big Storm is coming soon.  

What do you think?  Could Indian Summer work as setting for the climax of a mystery?  What other good, suspenseful weather-related settings do you use or you’ve read about?  

Obsession

We writers obsess over things.  Each of us has our own slant on this, usually centering around our works in progress, and how the world will receive our baby.  

Me?  I obsess over moose.  Just ask my family.  

Around this time last year I reported on the blog about some of my research on moose for my last Nell Letterly book, Murder by Moose.  I went up to the mountains last year, hunting for a glimpse of that majestic animal, but alas, it was not to be.  The moose were hiding from me.  Admittedly, I didn’t visit the moose capital of the state.  

This year I did, and I’m ecstatic to report that I spotted a female at Cameron Pass!  

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Isn’t she a beauty?  

As I watched, a small crowd of motorists pulled up, too.  Moose have extraordinary hearing, so I knew she could hear us, but she was too busy feeding to bother with us.  Besides, we kept our distance, thus the grainy photo quality.  I had just come from the moose visitor center, where I learned that if a moose watches you, you are too close.  

Oh, I obsess over writerly issues, too, just like any other writer, but right now, this moose sighting is haunting me.  Does that mean another book with a moose for a character is in the early stages of development?  Maybe.  Because writers often work on ideas that grow out of an obsession.   

Obsessions help us choose what to write about.  

Years ago, my first assignment from my first real writing teacher was to write up a short discussion about the idea I wanted to work on in class.  Everyone else seemed to go into that class with an idea already in hand.  I had five ideas, and each of them seemed equally important.  How was I to know which idea to choose?  The teacher offered to look at two of my ideas, if I could narrow my choices down.  I had trouble with that, too, as I kept going back and forth between all five.  But then I realized that I kept going back to one idea more than the others.  It mattered the most to me, because it had to do with another obsession of mine–family.  That was the idea that I chose to write about.  It’s been easier to choose ever since, because obsession guides me.  

Do you use obsession to help guide you with your writing and/or reading?  

Book Release! Burning Candles

I’m pleased to announce the release of my newest book:  

 

 

An American woman hides from her past by running to Brazil, only to find that the Brazilian cop she’s married has secrets far darker than hers.  She struggles with her new identity and a culture of cults and illegal abortions, while a series of murders link her new husband’s secrets to hers.  Will she become the next victim?

The story behind this book:

I’ve blogged here at Mysteristas several times about the process of writing this book.  It’s not the book I set out to write.  Originally, I meant to write a detective novel set in Brazil, but the detective’s new American wife hijacked the book.  She wanted the book to be about her.  

That was fine with me, because of the issue Peg raised last week about the importance of character and cultural diversity.  For me, it’s a lot easier to write within my own cultural perspective, so I liked the idea of writing about an American woman as the outsider to a different culture.  

Then, 3 no 7 asked some excellent questions a couple weeks ago that reminded me of the genesis of this book.  I’ve never been able to shake a powerful image from the time I lived in Brazil.  I liked to roam freely then, and I wandered into places that make me cringe by today’s safety standards.  On one of my wandering adventures, I saw a burning candle sitting on an open windowsill.  Later I was scolded so severely for having wandered there that this made a strong and lasting impression on me.  So I did some research into Brazilian cults, and then the “what ifs” started to grow, my imagination took over, and eventually, my characters came to life.  

I wanted to write about how that burning candle on the windowsill could completely turn upside down the story of one American woman’s life.  In order to do that, I had to write the back story of how that woman had gotten there, and how she’d become Rosalinda da Costa.  This book is her story.  

Maybe one day I’ll write the book that I originally intended to write–if Rosalinda lets me.  She’s one of the most demanding characters I’ve ever written about.  In the meanwhile, please join me in my celebration of this book with a virtual glass of champagne!  

We Are the Phoenix

On this 9-11 anniversary, a day of remembrance, I am always reminded of the phoenix.  On that day, the world held its collective breath, and the solid ground beneath our feet shifted.  We all have our stories to tell of that day, of where we were.  

I was at my writing desk, totally absorbed in my characters’ world, when the phone rang.  It was my daughter, calling from university.  

“Mom, where’s Dad?” she said, worry in her voice.  She’d grown up accustomed to his busy travel schedule for work.  

“He’s in D.C.,” I said, “at a meeting near the Pentagon.  Why?”  

Well, that was a tense day.  

Later, when my fingers stopped shaking long enough to call his cell phone, I got the ominous, recorded message that all lines were unavailable.  (Who records those messages??)  

He ended up driving his rental car all the way home to Colorado–in just 2 days.  

In the aftermath of those tragic and chaotic days, no one knew what to expect next.  For us writers, we didn’t know if the book business–or any other type of business–would rise again.  

It did.    

Writers can take a lesson from this reminder, because we have our own share of attempted knock-downs.  

Ideally, we keep queries and short stories in the marketplace at all times.  My own goal is to keep a dozen short stories out, trying to find a home, and a novel query pending.  This means I receive rejections almost daily.  One time I got five rejections in one day!  Talk about a knock-down…

Personally, I’ve lost an editor three times, a publisher twice, and an agent once.  Luckily, I’ve never lost the rights to my works, but I know many writers who have.  Some writers even have to re-invent themselves in order to write again.  

The bottom line is that we never give up.  In spite of adversity, we don’t let those punches keep us down for long.  We are the phoenix, and we always rise again!  

How My Characters Came to Be

Last spring I wrote a couple of blog posts about the various ways that writers develop characters.  I was describing the process in general terms.  Then last week, 3 no 7 asked some great questions, specifically about our characters.  Here’s my attempt to answer a bit more fully.  

3 no 7 asked:  How do you, as an author, determine the personality, mannerisms, and eventual fate of your characters?

My early books came out of the mish-mash of my reading experience, writing teachers,  critique partners, and life experiences.  Knowing what my favorite genres expected, I chose characters to fill required roles, and then I modeled them after real people I knew.  I filled out endless charts about the details of their lives.  I gave each of them personality tests to see how they would behave on the way to the end, which I’d already figured out, based upon my reader expectations.   

3 no 7 asked:  Do you control the characters or do they control you?

In those early books, I was pretty much in control, since I decided everything about my characters.  However, there was one character who threatened to take over the book, even though the book wasn’t about her.  She nagged me relentlessly to keep her secret (I didn’t).   

My next book was a turning point.  I had no control of my characters.  I thought I knew who the protagonist was, because I’d based her on my mother, who’d lost her struggle with Alzheimer’s.  I knew how my book had to end, but my heart wanted to feel at peace, and so as the story unfolded, other characters jumped in, maybe to support me.  When they started to act, it changed things.  They surprised me with unexpected twists, which impacted my protagonist, who no longer resembled my mother.  The book basically wrote itself, and I just buckled in for the ride at my keyboard.  

3 no 7 asked:  Do characters take on personalities different from their original personas?

Ever since that turning point, they mostly do.  My characters usually end up quite different from my original concept of them.  

When I started my Nell Letterly mysteries, I had a completely different character in mind (she had a different name, too).  I thought the instructor at a karate studio should be a hotshot twenty-something with lots of physical skill.  Trying to write that story felt as if my keyboard broke.  My subconscious worked hard on that problem and eventually came up with the suggestion to make the character someone I could more easily identify with:  a middle-aged suburban mom with more limited athletic skills.  When I put that idea together with a news story that had caught my interest about a missing professor, Nell came to life and told me her story.   

Usually, I don’t have the story until I have the character in place.  Except for my expat mysteries.  

3 no 7 asked:  Do you start with a defining event and work forward and back or do events evolve as you write?

My two expat mysteries started with a real event, and then I worked backwards from that.  In Dancing for the General, the event was the coup of 1960 in Turkey.  My story is fiction, and it’s not about the coup itself.  Instead, it’s about characters three years earlier, living in an environment that was building toward that event.  The situation required certain types of characters, and I chose them from the cast of people I’d known there.  

This was the first time I wrote out extensive bios of my characters.  I had to know why and how they’d gotten to Turkey, and I had to know how they would react to the situation there.  I couldn’t write the story without this information, so I had to have better control of these characters.  

My second expat mystery is coming out next month, so I’ll save those answers for later.  

Whew!  That’s a long answer, and it’s not done yet.  How about the rest of you?  Can you elaborate more on 3 no 7’s questions?  

 

Our Inner Child

I’ve been wanting to visit Meow Wolf these last three years, ever since a writer friend returned from there, and his brain was on fire.  

https://meowwolf.com

It’s an interactive art installation, but really, words fail to describe this place.  My friend said plenty about it, but I didn’t get it.  Last week I finally got my chance to see what it was all about when I took a road trip to Santa Fe.  

A robot greets you as you arrive.  

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You line up for your timed entrance, and inside you see what appears to be a Victorian house.  You are encouraged to touch everything, to open every door and study everything.  The house is full of secret doors and passageways that lead you through seventy something rooms of wild imagination.  As another friend very succinctly described this place, “It’s weird”:

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It’s like falling through the rabbit hole and wandering lost through Alice’s wonderland.  It fires the imagination, reminding us what it was like before reality squelched (or tried to squelch) that uninhibited imagination we typically experienced as a child.  How else would a “rational” adult think that a dinosaur’s ribs could become a xylophone?  Or that a washing machine could be…well, something more exotic?  (I don’t want to give anything away!)  

This experience reminded me of a journey into the imagination of our inner child.  Going to those places is how writers come up with their stories.  Writers are entertainers, and a writer’s mind works something like Meow Wolf.  Our minds spin with “what if” as we jump from one idea to another, trying out different ways to show a central premise and different routes to get there.  Too often, a little voice nags at us, saying “You can’t do that!”  

Oh, but we can.  That’s why I think it’s so important to connect with our inner child.  

Writers have to fire up imagination in order to take readers on an enjoyable ride that will stimulate their imagination, too.  

How do you connect with your inner child?