Weekend Update: May 21-22, 2022

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be a posts by Matt Cost (Monday) Sandra Neily (Tuesday), Maureen Milliken (Thursday) and Dick Cass (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Kate Flora: Giving a cool talk to the Lincoln County Historical Association about crime writers, including my dear friend Lea Wait. It’s a zoom event. Use the Facebook link to sign up. THURSDAY, MAY 26, 2022 AT 6 PM – 7 PM

https://www.penbaypilot.com/article/crime-writer-kate-flora-discusses-her-craft-her-friend-and-lincoln-county-mysteries/160298–

https://www.facebook.com/events/688619385739381

Also doing a panel in Warwick, RI next Tuesday at 2:00, in case you’re curious about how we write true crime:

https://warwicklibrary.org/adult-book-discussion/events/15355/sisters-crime-new-england-presents-we-are-not-making

Check it out—Maine Crime Wave is on for 2022

https://www.mainewriters.org/maine-crime-wave

https://www.mainewriters.org/events/panelists-moderators-2022

A Reminder: Only a few more weeks to enter!!

 

 

 

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Kate Flora: I’ve been reflecting lately on the decades of my writing career and being surprised at how much I’ve forgotten. Back in 1983, when our second son was about to be born and I’d decided to step away from the practice of law for a few years, I bought a primitive Epson compute and started working on a novel.

 

Back then I didn’t belong to any writers groups. Not big crime-related ones like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and not even a small writing critique group. My vision of how writers worked was a solitary soul sitting at desk imagining a story and then writing it down.

Me, back when this blog began

Over the years I occasionally found myself in small writing groups, and I did eventually join Sisters, and MWA, and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Mostly, though, I was by myself living in my head with my characters. As I gradually realized, though, crime writers need to know a lot about criminal investigations, along with the many bits of “lore” that inform the plots of our books. Our readers can be very picky about details and can be vocal if we get it wrong. That knowledge forced me out of my solitary comfort zone and into contact with people who could answer my questions.

For an early book that’s never been published, I needed to know about how police would conduct the exhumation of a buried body. I couldn’t post my query to the on-line chat group, but a police officer down in Newark, Delaware, Tom Le Min,  posted it for me, forwarded the replies, and even put together that notebook for me of material on how to do the exhumation. That turned out to be valuable not only for the unpublished book, but when I had to write about exhuming Amy St. Laurent’s buried body in Finding Amy. It was a later conversation with Tom Le Min about a case in Newark that gave me critical pieces of Joe Burgess’s character.

Looking back, I do wonder what people thought of me and my questions. A prime example

The Poison Lady

is a luncheon given in connection with my husband’s 25th Harvard reunion. While the alums were catching up, I realized that I had two people in the room who were ideal for answering questions about my work in progress. In An Educated Death, Thea is helping a client school deal with the fallout from a suspicious campus death. I wanted to know how the head of school would handle the situation—and the principal of Exeter was at the lunch. I borrowed a pad of paper and a pen and started asking Kendra Stearns O’Donnell my questions. She was brilliant and I came away with the kind of small details that make a story feel authentic.

And that wasn’t all. In the course of the book, someone tries to poison Thea to make her drop her inquiries into the student’s death. I had read my book on poisons, consulted with the amazing pharmacologist Lucy Zahray, and chosen one but now I had a captive ER doc in the room. I plunked myself down and asked about the specific physical effects the chosen toxin would have. I came away with a far better understanding of how Thea would feel as the poison began to work, and what symptoms she’d present with at the ER.

Each small step toward getting it right, scary as they were, made me a little braver. Over the years, to help Thea be brave and able to defend herself, I’ve taken a RAD/Self-Defense class through my local police department and a citizen’s police academy in a nearby town.

Even though each time I pick up the phone or send out a blind email asking a question or looking for help I am terrified, I have learned over and over how generous and helpful people can be.

For my first Joe Burgess book, Playing God, I sent an email to the Portland police department, asking their webmaster if there was someone there who could answer my questions. I got a helpful reply from Art Shaughnessy, lots of answers, and eventually a tour of the department. That led me to then Lt. Joe Loughlin, who became my go-to guy for answers, my writing partner, and a life-long friend.

That friendship led to Finding Amy, the Maine warden service, and Lt. Pat Dorian, who guided me through the warden’s portion of that story and then sent me up to Miramichi, New Brunswick, to write another story and acquire another amazing group of friends.

Kate and game warden Pat Dorion with Death Dealer at the Newport Library

At the Portage Restaurant with Chief Paul Fiander, Deputy Chief Brian Cummings, and Detective Dewey Gillespie

Late night chats in bars, including the cop who started out saying, “We don’t talk about that” and ended up telling me a very powerful story. Long evenings spent riding around in patrol cars talking about the motivation to become a cop. A funny chat in a police station about the insights of Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear. The time I cold called a diver and asked about how to bring up a body. It has all been an adventure I never anticipated. I am so grateful to all the people over the years who trusted me with their stories and who made the time to answer my questions so that I could write better books.

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SPRING-THEMED BOOKS

Ah Spring! It is the time of first flowers, warm sun, and, of course, stories. Among those are some terrific spring-themed mysteries to savor. Here are a few:

Agatha Christie’s Absent In The Spring is a character-drive psychological analysis of a middle-aged woman stuck at a desert outpost who, for the first time, looks back at what she thought was a happy, fulfilling life. As her past unravels before her, she realizes her life, and she herself, were not what she believed, but rather, to quote Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98, she had been “absent in the spring” seasons of life.

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear is a powerful story of political intrigue and personal tragedy when a brutal murder in the British military town of Gibraltar leads Maisie into a web of lies, deceit, and peril.

It is spring 1937 and four years after Maisie Dobbs set sail from England, leaving everything she most cared for behind. Since then Maisie has experienced love, contentment, stability—and the deepest tragedy a woman can endure. On the ship Maisie realizes she isn’t ready to return home. All she wants is the peace she believes she might find by returning to India. Against the wishes of the captain who warns her, “You will be alone in a most dangerous place,” she disembarks in Gibraltar. Though she is on her own, Maisie is far from alone: the British garrison town is teeming with refugees fleeing a brutal civil war across the border in Spain. But her sojourn in the hills of Darjeeling is cut short when her stepmother summons her home to England; her aging father Frankie Dobbs is not getting any younger.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 English novel by Lewis takes place in May when a young girl named Alice falls through a rabbit hole into the fantasy world of human-like creatures. An example of literary nonsense, the story was written by English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The tale plays with logic, which is why it appeals to children and adults. The big mystery is, of course, what really happened to Alice?

I’ll end with Glass Eels, Shattered Sea, book number 4 in my own mystery series. The story begins on a warm spring night in Maine. Alongside a roaring river where glass eels battle upstream currents to find the perfect place to lay their eggs oceanographer Mara Tusconi and her cousin Gordy find an old eel fisherman with a bullet in his chest. Unknown to them, Mara and Gordy have stepped into the deadly and stunningly lucrative world of international eel trafficking.

“Glass Eels” was a terrific book to research. I was amazed to learn that during the peak elver fishermen could make $3000-$4000 in one night! The eels’ life history is fascinating as well. They hatch in the Sargasso Sea’s warm waters south of Bermuda. Then they swim up rivers along our east coast where they spend most of their lives before migrating back to their birthplace to spawn and die. Little is known about eel spawning because scientists have yet to witness it – despite investing many hours and funds trying – because eels’ breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea is remote and difficult to sample.

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Elderly Banking

Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn C. Hardacker here: Have you ever had to contact your bank? What a pain in the keester! However, I plan on hiring the author of the letter below to deal with mine from now on!

Shown below, is an actual letter that was sent to a bank by an 82-year-old woman. The bank manager thought it amusing enough to have it published in the New York Times

Dear Sir:

I am writing to thank you for bouncing my check with which I endeavored to pay my plumber last month. By my calculations, three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the check and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honor it. I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my entire pension, an arrangement which, I admit, has been in place for only eight years. You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account $30 by way of penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank. My thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has caused me to rethink my errant financial ways. I noticed that whereas I personally answer your telephone calls and letters, — when I try to contact you, I am confronted by the impersonal, overcharging, pre-recorded, faceless entity which your bank has become. From now on, I, like you, choose only to deal with a flesh-and-blood person.

My mortgage and loan repayments will therefore and hereafter no longer be automatic, but will arrive at your bank, by check, addressed personally and confidentially to an employee at your bank whom you must nominate. Be aware that it is an OFFENSE under the Postal Act for any other person to open such an envelope.

Please find attached an Application Contract which I require your chosen employee to complete. I am sorry it runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative. Please note that all copies of his or her medical history must be countersigned by a Notary Public, and the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets, and liabilities) must be accompanied by documented proof.

In due course, at MY convenience, I will issue your employee with a PIN number which he/she must quote in dealings with me. I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28 digits but, again, I have modeled it on the number of button presses required of me to access my account balance on your phone bank service. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Let me level the playing field even further. When you call me, press buttons as follows: IMMEDIATELY AFTER DIALING, PRESS THE STAR (*) BUTTON FOR ENGLISH

#1. To make an appointment to see me.

#2. To query a missing payment.

#3. To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there.

#4. To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping.

#5. To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to nature.

#6. To transfer the call to my mobile phone if I am not at home.

#7. To leave a message on my computer, a password to access my computer is required. Password will be communicated to you at a later date to that Authorized Contract mentioned earlier.

#8. To return to the main menu and to listen to options 1 through 7 again

#9. To make a general complaint or inquiry. The contact will then be put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering service.

#10. This is a second reminder to press * for English. While this may, on occasion, involve a lengthy wait, uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.

Your Humble Client

Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also levy an establishment fee to cover the setting up of this new arrangement. May I wish you a happy, if ever so slightly less prosperous New Year?

Your Humble Client

And remember: Don’t make old people mad. We don’t like being old in the first place, so it doesn’t take much to piss us off. . .

 

Author note: I have tried to get her name and contact information, but the bank said they can’t release it due to privacy constraints! Riiiight!

 

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Feel-Good Movies

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. Seen any good movies lately?

I don’t necessarily mean at a movie theater. The last time I went to a new-release film in person (and in a crowd) was back when Mamma Mia! (the first one) came out, and I only went to see that one because the old friend I wanted to reconnect with in the Nashville TN area, where I was attending a conference, had already bought a ticket for that particular showing and didn’t want to miss it. It turned out to be a great way to spend part of an evening. Since then, the film has become one of my go-to rewatches when I want to put myself in a happy frame of mind.

As you’ve probably deduced, I prefer to watch movies in the comfort of my own home, and almost every evening during the last couple of years, I’ve either streamed a movie or binge-watched a few episodes of a TV series on my iPad. I have a huge collection of DVDs (and a few old VHS tapes of material not available on DVD) and I rewatch quite a few of them, too. There are several I’ll even watch when they turn up on network TV, despite the umpty-zillion commercial interruptions. Any time I need to cheer myself up, I have a long list of films to choose from.

I’ve just added one more. Last week I streamed The Lost City, one of two movies I’ve had on my “buy” list ever since I first heard the plot lines. (The other is Jurassic World: Domination, which isn’t yet available.) This one is about a romance writer and her “real-life” adventure seeking treasure in a South American jungle. Based on that description, you might think, as some reviews have suggested, that it’s just an updated version of Romancing the Stone, but that’s not the case. For one thing, in my opinion, The Lost City isn’t a so much a romance as it is a screwball comedy. Romancing the Stone, another of my favorites, is a romance. It’s also, according to Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (1995), a perfect example of “the hero’s journey.”

But I digress. And I’m about to digress again—I can’t help myself—to mention that one thing both movies do have in common is a strange idea of what the real romance publishing industry is like. Based on details in The Lost City, Loretta, Sandra Bullock’s character, is published by a small press in California. Most romance novels are published by large New York or Toronto houses. The writer would normally be badgered about her overdue manuscript by her agent, or possibly her editor (or the editor’s assistant), but not by her publisher, nor would the publisher be directly involved in promotion, let alone in tracking down her kidnapped writer when the police fail to act. Also, judging by details in the movie, our heroine doesn’t really write romance novels. She writes a romantic suspense/adventure series consisting of twenty books (yes, twenty!) featuring the same couple, Dr. Lovemore, an archaeologist, and her lover, Dash. Although Joan Wilder’s Angelina and Jessie apparently appeared in more than one Western historical romance in Romancing the Stone, “series” in the romance genre usually means several connected titles. A couple from one novel may appear in subsequent novels, but they are unlikely to be the hero and heroine of more than one book. These series are considered long-running if they reach seven entries.

The whole cover-model aspect of The Lost City is (I hope) played for laughs. No author I’ve ever heard of has chosen her own cover model unless she was self-publishing, and although there used to be cover model events at Romantic Times conventions, having Loretta’s cover model appear on  stage with her at a “Romance Faire” and completely take over the interview is definitely over the top. On the other hand, anyone who remembers a real-life cover model named Fabio, will find that scene hilarious.

Having said all that, you might conclude I didn’t like The Lost City. Reader, I loved it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in multiple places, and the heroine, whose career as a writer is at a crisis point, has a great one-liner when she is faced with having to climb a cliff to escape from the villain. Contending that she doesn’t have the skill set to handle the challenge, she quips: “My skill is sitting and thinking and eating when I can’t think.” I can relate to that!

Not all the feel-good movies on my list have completely happy endings, and the titles change from time to time, but here, in no particular order, are some I’ve watched again in 2022, some more than once: First Wives Club; Sleepless in Seattle; Jurassic World; The Avengers; Independence Day; Grease; Fool’s Gold, Oceans 11; Oceans 8, Burlesque, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; The Avengers—Infinity War and Endgame (watched back to back, because Infinity War by itself is too depressing!); Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again (although the continuity errors between it and Mamma Mia! drive me crazy); Tremors; Serenity. There are also two I regularly watch at specific times of the year: Die Hard for Christmas and, as each year’s World Series approaches, especially if the Red Sox once again seem bent on seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, Fever Pitch.

What movies do you watch when you want to lift your spirits?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.

 

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Weekend Update: May 14-15, 2022

Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be a posts by Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson (Monday) Vaughn Hardacker (Tuesday), Charlene D’Avanzo (Thursday) and Kate Flora (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

 

 

 

 

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. We also do programs on Zoom. Contact Kate Flora

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What’s the Point… of View?

I’ve been reading more widely than usual lately—thrillers, a variety of mysteries, literary fiction—as well as romantic suspense novels, which is what I write. One thing I have been paying attention to (a bother with being a writer as well as a reader) is the different ways author use viewpoint or point of view, or POV, a writer abbreviation. By that I mean the viewpoint from which the reader experiences the story. In school literature classes, we learned about first-person (I) and third-person narratives (he or she) with occasional mention of omniscient point of view, that is, by a narrator who sees all and knows all. Using only first person in a story limits the reader’s experience to only what that narrator sees, hears, feels emotionally, touches, knows, and experiences. The use of a single third-person narrator is much the same, except it’s “he” or “she” or the character’s name.  Little did I know then that viewpoint involves a whole lot more.

There are different levels of POV. Objective (external) POV levels are used to establish context from a distance. Along with omniscient viewpoint, another external viewpoint level is camera-eye in which the reader hears and sees only what a camera would show, and there is no person’s viewpoint, just the camera presenting it. We may see these techniques in small doses, as for opening a scene to show the situation before entering a character’s head.

Personal (internal) POV levels descend deeper and deeper into the thoughts and feelings of a character. Each level incorporates the one above it. First is the action level. The reader is in the POV character’s body, experiencing the action but without feeling or thought. This level is useful in action scenes when there’s little time for emotional reactions. A little bit deeper is the perception level, involving the five senses. The reader experiences the scene by what the character sees, hears, smells, etc. This level works well to establish a scene’s setting.

The third level into a character’s POV is the thought level. The reader is not only in the action, movements, and sensory perceptions of the character, but inside his or her mind. The scene may show something unique about the character’s thoughts.  The text might say:

Harry realized he and Blanche had been having the same argument for years. He’d had enough. “You’re vengeful, angry woman, Blanche.” He turned to go, feeling despondent about all the bitterness between them.

In this situation, the author is telling readers how Harry is thinking/feeling. The emotion or feeling level is next and is especially appropriate in moments of conflict. The most intimate POV level is that of voice along with emotion. Using voice is a tighter perspective inside the character. Both first-person and third-person narratives can dive deep, employing the character’s voice, emotions, perceptions, and action. It means using the character’s word choices and sentence patterns based on sex, education, occupation, interests, attitudes, styles, etc. Showing the emotion with visceral reactions (chest clenching, face warming, adrenaline ringing in the ears, etc.) is deeper than naming the emotion.

Here’s an example of intimate POV using voice and emotion. This is an excerpt from my book CLEOPATRA’S NECKLACE. Cleo has just found her cousin bleeding from a gunshot on a dark Venice street.

Mimi sprawled on her side, facing away from Cleo. Her legs and arms splayed like a discarded doll’s, unmoving. The street light glistened on the crimson spreading down her face and beneath her head. Cleo’s heart stopped. She jerked forward, her limbs stiff as if frozen.

She fell to her knees beside her fallen cousin. “No,” she breathed, a low moan welling up. “It can’t be, Mimi. Not you.” Her throat stung as if she’d swallowed acid. She punched the phone buttons. Once. Twice. Damn her clumsy fingers. How could this be happening? Finally the emergency dispatcher answered and Cleo stammered a report. She reached out. Stopped. Reached out again, her hand trembling. She drew a deep breath and pressed a finger to the still-warm neck. Laid a hand on Mimi’s back. Nothing. No breath. No pulse. She knelt there, white noise roaring in her ears, as the poisonous miasma of reality sank in. Her hand went to her throat. Mimi was dead.

Notice how Cleo’s emotions are visceral and direct. Without naming the emotions, readers know and even feel her horror and grief. This technique is done more often in romance novels, which have a more intimate and emotional narrative than most other genres. Using deep viewpoint effectively can lead to memorable characterizations.

We as readers don’t pay attention to how authors control the viewpoints used in a story. But as a writer, I ask myself as I craft a novel: Whose POV? How many viewpoints? Whose scene is it? What secrets do I want revealed? Or hidden? How deeply do I want to go into my POV character’s perspective?

I must control the point of view so it’s reader oriented to provide the experience I intend. I hope this all makes sense. I would love to answer your questions.

********

The Kindle version of ONCE BURNED, in my Task Force Eagle series, is on sale now through May 15 for only 99 cents. Here’s a short description: When Jake must protect Lani from a killer, his undercover case becomes tangled with the old fire that killed his girlfriend, Lani’s twin.

ONCE BURNED is one of eight that take place in Maine. You can find it here: http://getBook.at/OnceBurned

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This Is The End, My Only Friend, The End


Have you ever arrived at the end of your novel and realized it just didn’t work? Or that you had no idea how to end it? Or who did the crime and why they did it? If the answer to these questions is yes then don’t feel like you’re alone. All of us writers feel this way at one point or another.

riting a compelling ending is hard work. It requires a lot of thought and contemplation. You have to be adaptable and willing to look at your story from different angles. How many times have we read a great novel, often one by a big name author, and been sorely disappointed by the ending? It’s almost as if they got tired of their story and just stopped. As writers, we definitely don’t want to leave our hard-earned readers on a sour note.

If writing endings were easy, everyone would be a writer. At times, I wish being a writer was like being a starting major league pitcher. You pitch the first eight innings of the game and then have a closer come in to finish the ninth for you. But alas, if you want to be an author, writing a satisfying ending is something we must learn to do.

Using another sports analogy; the best defense is often a good offense. And by this I mean that half the battle in composing a great ending is writing a great story. Making the reader care how your story ends means you’ve done a successful job holding their interest. Now you need to smoothly land this jet plane that is your plot and make sure your passengers get to their gates. You’ll need to provide an ending that will give closure and allow the reader to walk away satisfied.

The type of book you’re writing can often determine the type of ending you’re shooting for. A police procedural or cozy mystery requires that the ending be neatly wrapped up. Domestic thrillers, which I write, often have ambiguous endings, leaving the reader wondering what just happened. A great example of this is Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. After all the horrendous things Nick’s wife has put him through during the course of the novel, Nick realizes at the end that he can’t just up and leave her. Amy’s gotten herself pregnant, and Nick is terrified that his child will be raised by this evil woman.

Many readers were angry that Flynn ended her novel this way. Others loved this ambiguous ending. It left the reader contemplating about will happen next in their relationship. It’s the same reaction many viewers had when watching the last episode of The Sopranos. Tony and his family are sitting in the booth of a diner. Mysterious people walk in and out. There’s something tense and scary about this scene. We wonder what’s going to happen. Will Tony and his family get killed? Then the screen goes black and that’s the end of the show. Some people loved this ending while others despised it and felt they’d been cheated for all the time and effort they put in watching the series.

The show, Breaking Bad, on the other hand, has a well defined plot arc that resembles a rainbow; at the end is a pot of gold. The writers wrapped up the show and left no question about Walt’s fate. Each show ended differently, for entirely different reasons, and each ended in interesting fashion. The ending fit the story line.

Not to get metaphysical, but what actually is an ending? If you ask yourself this question, I believe it will make writing your endings that much easier. Or at least less harder. Because, when one thinks about it, an ending is merely the beginning of something else. Consider what will happen to your surviving characters after your book ends. If it’s a series, the conclusion will impact how your characters act and think in the next book.

The most important aspect of your ending is this: how will the main characters change or be changed by the events that happened in your plot. Sometimes a violent, action-packed ending is not what’s needed. Sometimes, it’s how your character has changed that leaves the reader emotionally impacted. As in GONE GIRL, Nick is left reeling because he will have to live with his evil wife for the foreseeable future. This type of profound ending hits like a sledgehammer and keeps the reader thinking about your story long after it’s finished.

Lay the groundwork for your ending by writing a killer plot. A strong storyline will do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to crafting the conclusion. Spend time thinking about how to close out your novel even while you’re writing it. Sometimes it helps to write out a few different scenarios before you find the one that fits best. Often, it will take a few rewrites to get it just right. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll listen to your agent and editor, both of whom will give you additional input as to bring your storyline together.

Don’t get discouraged. Endings are tough. Persevere and work your way through them. And with that, I wish you the best writing that killer ending.

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Win a Book Wednesday, May 11, 2022

 

Congrats to Molly Weston, whose name was drawn to win a copy of Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett’s The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries. Thanks to all who left comments to enter. Your thoughts on what happened to my series characters after their series came to an end were much appreciated.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.

 

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CHARACTER HISTORY: I WONDER OVER A MARTINI AT A PUB

 

King Eider’s Pub, Damariscotta: a dozen Dodge Cove oysters in front of us. Hundreds of large-scale, numbered-on-the-bottom beer mugs hang from the rafters (the manager tells us it’s a couple hundred dollars for a one-time buy of the mug, the buyer gets a special hook on the ceiling and discounted beer for life). The sun’s coming in the picture window, our booth has a nice warm feel to it. We started the day moving, cleaning up dirt, grime, and mice droppings and then, I began painting and continued for eight hours, so I welcome my martini with gusto.

Clear, most of the day was painting –  funky fiber-board walls in a recently-purchased, sixty-year-old, well-loved but amateur-built, lopsided camp fifteen miles from the Pub. I decided to paint everything white – to cover up the tired, streaked, banana yellow color that, over decades, had experienced coffee sprays, detritus from a leaky roof, dog scratches and what I think must have been a few nacho fests or salsa food fights? Or was it a crazy crayon battle? Magic Marker mayhem? Catsup catastrophe?

There are these random streaks along the baseboard in the mini-sunroom. They’re reddish. They cluster in and around a corner where the wiring for an old cable hook-up still lives.

The inexpensive one-coat primer/paint I bought from the cute and efficient hardware sales guy was supposed to do the trick. He’d told me he’d been in the Navy and tasked with painting and repainting ships’ interiors for his entire years of service, so, of course he was knowledgeable about paint. He recommended this hardware-store-brand paint; said he’d painted his whole house with it, had no problems at all.

But maybe he’d never encountered this STUBBORN RED. A red that refuses to be subdued.

I painted. Let the wall dry. Painted it again. Let the wall dry. The STUBBORN RED streaks and splatters were momentarily covered and – seconds later – they rose to the surface again like corpses – the ones that float to the top of a river if they haven’t been properly weighted down.

Is it blood? I know our brains are all going there.

I don’t know.

Wikipedia tells me I can get blood off walls using Clean Magic Erasers or Scotch-Brite Eraser pads.

It also tells me that an artist in New York named Vincent Castiglia uses his own blood as paint because he wants to connect on an “intimate level” with his work and his patrons.  And since, he says, human blood contains iron oxide (a pigment found in many traditional paints) he figured “what a perfect substance to create that intimacy”. Castiglia’s work is not cheap, and it does sell, so I guess his “body-fluid presence” graces a lot of people’s homes.

Quick research also tells me that I can paint over blood. Experts say it may take one coat – at the most two coats. It should be able to be forced to disappear into the walls.

But, after four coats of paint, my STUBBORN RED has not disappeared. It does a teasing disappearance act, then keeps appearing on the surface again with a “can’t get rid of me” smirk.

The painting dilemma led me to thinking about another problem I’m facing: How much backstory should go into a book series? When should it appear and when should it disappear? I’m into the third book of my Dee Rommel Mystery series, and this question is consuming me.

I’m not a disciplined “read-in-the-order-the-author-hoped-for” person. I prefer to do that, but sometimes it’s not convenient – or I make a mistake and pick up the wrong book.

How much backstory/history does the reader want or need? Louise Penny has given us 17 (so far) books featuring great main characters. Each book sets up (reminds us) of Chief Inspector of Surete du Quebec Armand Gamache and his intense love of his wife, his pride in his children, and his worry about his right-hand man’s (Jean-Guy) former drug addiction. Also, she provides the histories of the odd assortment of villagers and the reasons for their quirky attitudes. And sometimes (sometimes not) quick re-caps of past investigations. She does remind us of the current state of mind of the characters and the current political/personal climates of their work. As the series progresses, the characters go through changes and, for me, I appreciate Penny awakening my memories of what has gone on before.

I also appreciate how Penny manages to fill these memories swiftly. But how does she decide what to include in each of the books? She’s judicious, it’s not the same in each one. I would love to be schooled in how she decides what’s to be included.

Michael Connelly’s got 20 books (so far) featuring Bosch. Connelly doesn’t linger in backstory or in catching the reader up with Harry Bosch’s life. The books focus on the current crime. Harry’s personality (prickly, smart, a loner) is front and center, but, for the most part, not his past loves, friendships or living situations.

Patricia Cornwell (her Kay Scarpetta series) and Sue Grafton (in the Kinsey Malone series) do more. The exposition is woven in, sometimes overtly, sometimes elegantly.

I love Anne Perry’s various crime/mystery series (Charlotte and Thomas Pitt (30+ books), William Monk (20+ books), Daniel Pitt (6 books) and Elena Standish (4 books), but I do find myself wanting more backstory/history for each of her characters – it would make it easier for me to jump on board the story train. I don’t want to spend time, as a reader, googling past synopses or trying to remind myself of past plots and relationship timelines, I want to be subtly fed what I need to remember.

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series keeps the reader informed of the “why” the character is in the state she’s in (relationships, career, state of mind) and then moves forward with the crime/mystery. Beaton gets the backstories “out of the way” early, and moves on.

Janet Evanovich, in most of her 27 books in the Stephanie Plum series, holds the reader’s hand a bit and provides a catch-up.  The character, Plum, has  aged and grown and changed.  If I’ve missed a book in the “proper” sequence, she fills me in.

I haven’t read Joe Nesbo for a few years, and I could be wrong, but I think Harry Hole does not get a big backstory fill-in. Let me know if I am falsely remembering the stories.

Back to my STUBBORN RED. After the fifth coat of paint, and watching the red disappear and then rise again to the surface, I figure that – in a way – the RED is telling me  there might be some interesting history or backstory to this funky cottage that I am now calling “mine”.

Now to the questions that concerns my dilemma: how much history and backstory is too much (or too little)? How do I make sure readers can jump on board the Dee Rommel series’ story train with going down the exposition rabbit hole?

Would love to know how other people handle it.

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