They're new, so get a clue! Read this mystery author's roundtable to find out more about these six breakout authors.
The authors in this roundtable include Cynthia Baxter (LEAD A HORSE TO MURDER), Christopher Fowler (FULL DARK HOUSE), Lois Greiman (UNZIPPED), Morag Joss (FEARFUL SYMMETRY), Vicki Lane (SIGNS IN THE BLOOD), and Brian M. Wiprud (STUFFED). Find out how they got started writing mysteries and how they come up with their criminally unique plots.
You are all included in a Bantam Dell promotion called "Breaking and Entering," because you are breakout writers in the mystery genre. What was your big break into mystery writing?
Coming up with an idea that really excited me: building a mystery series around a female veterinarian with a clinic on wheels. As a lifelong animal lover, I thought it would be fun to write about a vet and the animals in her life, both her patients and her own petsand that the mobility her job provided would give her plenty of opportunities to investigate murders. I was also enthusiastic about setting the series on Long Island, since I knew its varied aspects would provide some great backdrops for murder mysteriesthe Hamptons' celebrities, the polo culture, and the vineyards on the North Fork, to name a few.
I wrote a book called PSYCHOVILLE and fell in love with the idea of fooling the reader fairly. The inventor Barnes Wallis said "There is no greater joy in life than first proving that something is impossible and then showing how it can be done." So that's what I didpulling a switch at the end of the book that nobodyso far as I knowsaw coming, and adding to its mystery.
I wrote historical romance novels for years and enjoyed the process immensely. During that time my friend, Mary, would spend hours riding horses with me in a nearby park reserve. Mary has never reached the five-foot mark. She's far less than a hundred pounds. But she's one of the scrappiest, most interesting women I've ever met. She's also a psychologist. So while we rode, I would tell her about my books, and she would tell me about the men she was dating and the clients she was counseling (many of whom, in my humble opinion, should have been one and the same). During one of our many rides, I had an epiphany; I realized that I couldn't make up stories as enthralling as the ones she told me. So I let the tales rumble around in my brain for years until...voilaChristina McMullen, psychologist extraordinaire, was born. She's taller than Mary, but she's got that same can-do, gritty attitude. When I finally sent my proposal to my agent, she was as enamored with Chrissy as I was. Luckily, the people at Bantam Dell liked her just as much.
My big break into mystery writing was also my big break into writing. Until this point I'd never tried to write; I suppose I assumed that I couldn't possibly be clever enough. What happened was that in early 1996 P. D. James was in town to appear at the Bath Literary Festival, and as I'd met her the previous year I'd invited her to stay. We went to look at the famous Roman Baths. As a joke I said that the hot spring would be a good place to find a body. She agreed, and suggested I should go and write the story. I did, just to see if I could, and the result was FUNERAL MUSIC, the precursor of FEARFUL SYMMETRY. In writing it I discovered a lifelong ambition to write that I didn't know I had, and that writing is about a great deal more than cleverness. I will always be grateful that P. D. James didn't get the joke and made me take the whole idea seriously. Writing is now a necessityit feels like what I am for.
My big break was double: first, when my agent took a chance on a newcomer and signed me, and secondly, when a legendary editor bought SIGNS IN THE BLOOD and challenged me to make it better.
Winning the 2003 Lefty Award with my self-published novel PIPSQUEAK, which led to me being picked up by Bantam Dell.
What have you learned about the craft of mystery writing now that your novel is complete?
I know now that it's not enough to create a clever plotyou need a carefully submerged theme for readers to think about. You must also never underestimate your readers' intelligence. I don't like spelling everything outgaps can add resonance. Life is mysteriousyou don't need to know why two people hate each other or fall in loveyou just need to know that they do.
To me, there's a mystery in every book, but sometimes it's more apparent than others. Writing UNZIPPED allowed me to bring those fun mystery elements closer to the core of the plot, but I've learned that keeping the characters lively and real is still of major importance.
That I began knowing nothing! And I still feel there's very little I "know" in that I don't consciously apply technical rules like "Introduce all your characters in first twenty pages" or "Never have more than four suspects". I love language, I'm intrigued by structure. I love speculating about, observing and inventing people and I find it impossible not to "live" in the world of the book as I'm writing it. But I haven't a clue, for instance, whether plot or characters come first. I don't really know what determines pace and suspense. I just want my reader to read on, to have his or her sympathies engaged so that they care about the characters and what happens to them.
The other thing I have learned is never to be without a notebook, and to write down sudden ideas, phrases, thoughts, flashes of insight at once! You think of a thing at 3 am and it seems far too important to forget, but by morning it's gone...
It's like jugglingone by one, you throw suspects into the mix, keep them going in a pretty circle, then, one by one, remove them till you're left with the inevitable answer to "whodunit?"
I guess there are three essentials that I've learned about the craft:
Show more than tell.
Paint more than describe.
Catharsis more than climax.
The most important part of writing a mysteryas well as one of the trickiestis timing. For me, the biggest challenge is figuring out when to reveal each piece of information to the reader. That includes finding the best way to introduce the various suspects so the plot makes sense and I'm not giving too much away.
Another important aspect of timing is knowing how long to stay in a scene. It's so much fun creating all the quirky characters and the various situations my heroine encounters that it's tempting to go on and on. But the writer has to keep things moving in order to prevent the reader from snoring!
Tell us about a scene or one of your characters of which you're especially proud.
I love the scene when Lieutenant Jack Rivera first enters Chrissy's life. She's in an extremely compromised position. In fact, one of her clients has just dropped dead on her office floor from a Viagra overdose, and it looks as if she had something to do with his demise. But when the lieutenant arrives to accuse her of that very thing, we find out that she's no wilting flower. Chrissy McMullen is fully capable of handling a dead body and the entire LAPD.
I like all my characters, flawed human beings as they all are. I feel most for the ones I kill off, I thinkperhaps I want their forgiveness. In FEARFUL SYMMETRY, my poor, exploited, doomed Adele and her scene in the garden at Iford with the peacock has stayed in many readers' minds, and I'm delighted about that.
Little Sylvie is the charactera 13 year-old Appalachian mountain girl from 1901who stepped up and took over when my editor suggested adding a subplot. SIGNS IN THE BLOOD is written in third person but the subplot that is Little Sylvie's story poured out in first person as if she were telling it through me.
I'd have to single out a scene involving a dead carp and mistaken identity in SLEEP WITH THE FISHES (to be a 2006 Dell paperback.) This was my first self-published novel (2001), and it came out in limited quantities. Everybody who read the book found the carp scene the funniest in the novel. I was surprised that sceneof all of themwas singled out. But I came to realize that in that scene the humor resonates not only because of the writing, but because of where it's placed in the narrative. It's satisfying to have accomplished that intuitively, and yet the experience was a lesson in the importance of comic timing and pacing.
My favorite scene is the climax of the second book in the series, PUTTING ON THE DOG. The story takes place in "the Bromptons," a fictionalized version of Long Island's chic Hamptons. A lot of celebrities spend the summer there, including famous actors. I wanted to take advantage of this one-of-a-kind setting by concluding the book with a really theatrical climax. I managed to squeeze in a stage, an audience, a bunch of movie and TV stars, and even some swash-buckling antics right out of an old black-and-white classic film.
In FULL DARK HOUSE I especially like the first meeting between my detectives Bryant & Mayit sets the tone for how they will be the rest of their lives. Bryant is scatty, excitable, rude, slightly mad. The first thing he gets his new partner to do is break a code hidden in butterfly wingsand the solution requires a knowledge of naval flags!
What is the most difficult part of being a mystery writer? What is most rewarding?
For me the most difficult, but essential part of being any kind of writer is the need to spend so much time aloneI both love and hate the solitude. Sometimes it's very hard to re-enter the world inhabited by "normal" people but that's essential, tootoo much of my own company could drive me nuts!
The most rewarding part is hearing from readers. It's wonderful to hear that your work has given pleasure. And sometimes someone tells you that a book really moved them, or changed an attitudeconcerning autism in FEARFUL SYMMETRY, for exampleand that's an amazing privilege, to have been permitted to affect someone in that way.
Most difficult? Writing when I don't feel like writingand keeping all those balls in the air.
Most rewarding? Writing when I don't feel like writingand then having the characters take over and tell the story themselves.
Most difficult: sitting down to the computer and getting into "the zone."
Most rewarding: sitting down to the computer and getting into "the zone."
The most difficult part of being a mystery writer is sitting down at the computer every day and facing a blank screen! My favorite quotation of all time is, "I hate writing but love having written." Writing is hard work. It takes a lot of focus to channel into the creative part of the mindat least my mind! But when it comes to the rewards, stepping back and reading something I've written and saying, "Hey, this isn't bad!" is the best feeling I've ever experienced.
The first draft is hardest because you have so many displacement activities. I make endless pots of tea when I'm thinkingplus, I have a day job that demands attention. The best part is the third and final draft, which is all about making the language more attractive.
I have to admit that UNZIPPED pretty much wrote itself. It was fun from beginning to end. I'm just hoping the readers love it as much as I do.
Do you outline the plot before you began a book, or do you let the story evolve on its own? Whether you outline or not, do the stories usually end up as you had planned?
I don't outline as such. I begin with the basicsa victim, a perpetrator, and several red herrings. I have a general idea of how the story will play out.
Sometimes the characters simply will not behave as I had planned that they would but strike out on their own. I love it when this happens.
I start with a premise, plain and simple, and see where my characters take it.
In writing a book, I do some outlining, but I also develop the plot as I go. When I come up with an idea for a book, there are always some scenes I know will have to be included: my heroine finding the body (or learning about the murder), scenes with recurring characters like the Norfolk County chief of homicide, Jessica's boyfriend Nick, her neighbor Betty, and her pets, and scenes in which she questions the suspects. I jump right in and start writing those scenes, knowing that once they get going, ideas for other scenes will pop into my head. Meanwhile, I have an on-going outline that keeps getting longer and longer so that by the time I finish the book, I look extremely organized.
My stories do end up the way I'd originally planned because, for me, thinking up a book idea means deciding upon both the victim and the murderer at the very start. Beyond knowing who's guilty, the locale or the characters in that particular book usually suggest the ending.
I outline first, but leave the ending open, because that part ALWAYS changes.
I write an outline for each book, but if the characters don't force me to make significant changes, I'm always suspicious. I believe that if the characters are strong and vibrant, they'll let me know where the story has to go.
I plan carefully but not in huge detail, and the story can deviate from the outline, though not widely. No matter how much I plan I never really know my characters until I write them, and then sometimes how I expected them to be turns out to be not quite rightthey do things slightly differently. When that happens it's as if I'm being shown the story, not inventing it.
What one quality do you think a good mystery writer should have?
Passion. For me, this translates into several qualities, including persistence, but also the emotional investment to create compelling characters.
I think every mystery writer needs to have a basic love of suspense. My son, for example, hates surprises. Not knowing what's in each one of his wrapped birthday packages really makes him uncomfortable. But mysteries are all about the waitingand the uncertainty. Whenever I tell a story about a shopping trip or a car breakdown, it's always full of drama. I love making people wait for the punch line, because that's the best part! I think mystery writers have to enjoy building upon the drama that's inherent in an unsolved puzzle, playing with their readers and luring them into the story by dropping little hints, introducing new possibilities...and (hopefully) making them unable to stop reading until they've gotten all the way to the end.
Humanityit makes you curious and disposed to be kind.
Curiosity. An author has to be driven, not only to solve the mystery, but to intimately get to know every character that appears on her stage.
I cannot think of a single one that would be of any use without at least ten others (all of which I am working on): Empathy. Taste. A lateral-thinking mind. A love of language. Precision in its use. Powers of observation. Wit. Compassion. Tenacity. Courage. Humility.
Is it too obvious to say imagination? I think a good mystery writer has to see the potential for evil in the most ordinary people, the potential for terror in the most everyday settings, and the potential for many alternative outcomes to one problem.
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