When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
Category Archives: Mysterious Ways
What Makes a Mystery Memorable
What are your favorite mystery series and why?
I posed that question on Facebook and a Sisters in Crime list to confirm my own observations and help me prepare a session on writing a mystery series. Eighteen mystery lovers responded, most women and most naming two or three favorite writers or series. Few of them said why.
One who did was author Eleanor Cawood Jones. She wrote, “I look for in-depth characters and amazing settings. Carolyn Hart’s Henrie O, Blaize Clements’ catsitter mysteries, Mary Daheim’s Alpine, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series. The lead characters in each of those have a past and a story to tell. Maybe even a dark story.”
Author Grace Topping also stressed the importance of character, saying, “My favorites are Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series and Anne Perry’s William Monk series. I particularly like these two series because of the depth of the characters and the wisdom that each of the authors imparts.”
Beth Schmelzer reads for various qualities. She likes the humor in books by Marcia Talley and Elaine Viets, the fast-paced plots and fascinating dialogue in both of Hank Ryan’s series, the relationships and frightening plots in Julie Spenser-Flemings’ books, and “the twists of a dog narrating” in Spenser Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series. Beth also named a series I want to explore: “Arianna Franklin’s unique protagonist who solves crimes in Great Britain with the knowledge of forensics in the time of the Crusades when women weren’t allowed to be doctors, nor did they receive respect.”
One of the most frequently mentioned characters, of course, was Sherlock Holmes. Author KB Inglee spoke for many: “I discovered Sherlock Holmes when I was in High School, and can’t get enough. I watch every remake and take off I can find.”
Another writer, Nancy Eady, said, “Sherlock Holmes runs neck and neck with P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels. P.D. James has a lot more substance and depth in her novels but Sherlock simply rocks!” Nancy’s all-time favorite, however, is Nero Wolfe.
Writer Carrie Koepke reported that her teenage daughter loves Sherlock, but Carrie said, “I get lost in Ruth Rendell—the way she tackles the mental side of her stories is fascinating.”
Among the other series mentioned were Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Elizabeth Peters’ Jacquelyn Kirby, Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter, Dick Frances’ horse racing, Dorothy Gilliam’s Mrs. Pollifax, Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who, Anne George’s Southern Sisters, Ann B. Ross’ Miss Julia, and Laura Joh Rowland’s samurai-era Japan.
Other authors included Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Sarah Caudwell, Dennis Lehane, Janet Evanovich, Dorothy Cannell, Dianna Mott Davidson, and Deborah Crombie. Oddly enough, no one brought up Agatha Christie.
This short list undoubtedly includes and excludes authors that would appear on a scientifically balanced survey—and on my own list. High on it are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody, J. A. Vance’s Joanna Brady, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series, Carolyn Hart’s Death on Demand, Joan Hess’s Maggody and Claire Malloy, William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. These present great characters, fascinating settings, and good writing.
You’re welcome to chime in with your own favorites and reasons for liking them.
I’ll talk about five reasons readers like mystery series in my presentation September 23, but the most important one is compelling characters, ones we want to visit again much as we do good friends.
The Fun Starts Before the Writing Begins
This is part of the September 2014 Sisters in Crime (SinC) Blog Hop. Authors answer one of several questions. I chose to write about what part of the writing process I enjoy most.
The writing process breaks into three parts: coming up with the idea, writing the first draft, and revising until ready for readers.
Each part of the process delights and frustrates me because each one stimulates a different part of my intellect and emotions. For plain old fun and excitement, though, nothing beats that first step of choosing a story’s building blocks—usually who, what, and where.
Any of the three may spark an idea, but most sparks soon go out. Writing an 85,000-word mystery takes real commitment. My enduring ideas integrate characters, plot, and setting into a story I can’t resist telling either because I can’t imagine how it will end or, more often with mysteries, because I can imagine the ending but not how the characters will get there. Whichever it is, if I don’t think the journey will entertain and satisfy me, I won’t put words on paper.
Here’s how the three building blocks came together for my Show Me series. The idea for the protagonist sprang from a news story about an outed CIA covert operative, drew on my personal experiences in living abroad, and crystallized as I planned to move back to my home state, Missouri, after being away for decades. I had my major ongoing characters and the setting in a struggling rural county.
What took more time was working out a plot that fit the major characters and the setting. I don’t know either the people or where they live thoroughly until I’ve written many pages, of course, and they change somewhat from book to book, but I had to acquaint myself with their goals, flaws, and major personality traits before I wrote the first words of Show Me the Murder.
Some writers know their characters instantly because they and their friends are the characters. I don’t find myself interesting enough to appear in my fiction. While some of my friends and family members would qualify, I wouldn’t expose what makes them so interesting to the world. I create my characters from scratch, blending pieces of hundreds of people I’ve known to create complicated beings who intrigue and amuse me. I revel in exploring the motivations, reactions, and attitudes of those who come to life on the page.
I approach setting in much the same way. I don’t stage a crime in a real place, but I try hard to reflect the region’s cultural and economic environment, including speech patterns and attitudes.
Ideas for plots often come from conversations with people around me and the local news. That includes not just crimes (e.g., meth cooking and importation in Show Me the Murder and rustling in Show Me the Deadly Deer) but economic and social problems (e.g., elder abuse in Show Me the Gold and racism in Show Me the Ashes, the upcoming books in the series).
Another factor to consider is whether the characters and setting will foster plots that will interest me, and readers, over several books. A part of the challenge is to find an idea you can expand on with pleasure and for profit for years.
For other SinC Blog Hops, go to Judy Hogan’s http://postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com (posted September 21, 2014), and Maya Corrigan’s “Writing While I Sleep” at http://mayacorrigan.com/smorgasblog (postied September 21, 2014).
Interview: Judy Hogan Shares Her Writing Techniques
Judy Hogan has led the writing life for fifty years. In October 2013 one publisher released her second mystery, Farm Fresh and Fatal, and another her fifth book of poetry, Beaver Soul. She also has written two nonfiction books, founded and served as editor of Carolina Wren Press (1976-1991), and continues to teach courses in writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (e.g., diary/memoir).Her mystery series reflects her deep roots in social activism and in North Carolina. The first book, Killer Frost (Mainly Murder Press, 2012), involves educational and financial fraud on a historically black college campus, a setting she knows well. Farm Fresh and Fatal focuses on another familiar place, a farmers’ market, with vendors holding different views on sustainable agriculture and genetically modified produce.
I interviewed Judy about why and how she writes mysteries.
Q: You’ve written poetry and prose, nonfiction and fiction. Why did you choose to write traditional mysteries?
I started reading mysteries in 1981, when I was forty-four. My eldest child had gone off to college, and I had a little more time in the evening when I was too tired to work. I began with Golden Age authors my father recommended. He’d been reading them all his adult life, and I’d never understood why. He was a minister who escaped by reading mysteries? A puzzle I now understand. I read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, P.D. James.
In 1990, I was having a writing vacation (to write poetry) on the Gower Peninsula in Wales, and instead of ranging around the cliffs, I was housebound with a sprained ankle. My landlady in the B&B, who could never get me to watch the telly because I wanted to read mysteries, said, “Judy, why don’t you write a murder?” I began to plot one set in a B&B, with my landlady as a character.
I didn’t know I was writing a traditional mystery. It was later in a workshop with Margaret Maron that I learned that. I did try to publish The Sands of Gower. I even had a nice rejection letter from Ruth Cavin, the legendary editor at St. Martin’s. I had always thought that writing poetry was my best genre, and maybe that’s true, but I found mysteries fun to write, and in them I was able to do some things that I couldn’t do in my nonfiction writing. I could invent characters and put them together and see what they would do, and in this way learn things I didn’t know I knew about myself and other people. That’s the magic of fiction for me. I also like happy endings. Some books have tragedy, but there’s still a sense of completion and a transformation.
Q: How did your experience writing essays, memoir, and poetry help you in writing your mysteries?
I think all writing you do helps other writing. I keep a diary, write in it every morning, and that has proved a good way to clear out my mind of trivia. Then I write a poem, an essay, or get ready to write fiction. I had learned in those other forms that I wrote better and more effectively, in a way to touch other people more, if I went deeper, and the part of me that I call the Muse, or the true creativity, came into play. So I came closer to my writing goals. I don’t usually have characters wake me up, but they definitely come alive in my mind. Over the years I had already developed a good relationship with my Muse, and pen to paper had become natural, comfortable.
Q: You present issues important to you in your mysteries. Those issues help propel the plot, motivate the characters, and establish the setting. Even so, the mystery dominates the message, and your endings surprise readers. What techniques did you use in conceiving and writing Farm Fresh and Fatal to assure storytelling didn’t cross over into preaching?
The thing about fiction and mysteries in particular is that you have a moral universe. I have a heroine and various admirable characters, and then I have a killer and some characters who are annoying in one way or another. My killers aren’t usually purely evil, but they have become desperate or in some way, lost their perspective or become obsessed. So the basic plot of the mystery serves me to highlight problems in the community that in some way “spawn” a killer.
Once I have my idea of the problem I want to focus on (and I’ve worked on all the ones I take up with the activist side of my personality) and set up the good and bad characters, the murderer and the suspects, the plot tends to highlight the situation in the community that worries me. I like speaking this way about issues, and after being involved in local politics, this suits me better. I often upset people in a grassroots effort because I tend to be blunt, and even the good guys sometimes become pompous and don’t like to hear someone speak the truth. I can speak all the truth I want in my books and make fun of people who annoy me, even kill them off!
Q: You introduce a lot of characters in the early chapters but manage to make each one distinctive. How do you go about choosing and creating characters?
I have an ongoing heroine/sleuth, Penny Weaver, loosely based on me, my age, a poet, with many of my interests, but her voice is a little more satirical than mine. Her lover/husband Kenneth was her first sidekick, and then a character I wholly invented, Sammie Hargrave, an African American, came to life, and I liked her so much that I found her an ideal sidekick, more even than Kenneth, who tends to worry about Penny’s always seeming to end up face to face with the murderer. Sammie also balances Penny’s usually good behavior. Sammie will deceive, take on criminals with karate moves, and is generally ready for anything.
I use Elizabeth George’s Write Away strategies for character and plot development. I write down all the characters I need. After this many books, I already have a lot to choose from, since an interracial group of activists works on issues in my fictional Riverdell.
Actual people sometimes get me going. People are each so different when you get to know them, and their quirks help me make them unique and provide humor, hopefully. My goal is that each one lives individually for the reader. I still work at that, but they come alive better if I know how they talk, behave, what their background is, what their “core need” is and what they do when they can’t have what they believe they need. The Muse helps. I often ask her questions re characters and plot, and she makes suggestions, which I almost always follow. Knowing the characters well helps me plot.
Q: One of your ongoing themes is rocky relationships between mothers and their adult daughters. Are you taking a personal risk here? What do your daughters think of the scenes between Penny, the main character, and her somewhat unstable daughter Sarah?
Oh, my. I’ve given my books to my two daughters, and I don’t think either one has read them, and perhaps they won’t recognize themselves, though they have both, and my son, too, given me pause over the years. In the end my life is richer because my kids gave me a hard time, even to our needing some therapy as a divorced family, to get them raised. Those conflicts are still vivid to me. It’s easy for me to write scenes between adult children and their parents. My oldest is fifty-one, and my youngest is forty-one, and I hope they don’t take offense if/when they read the books. I’m taking the risk.
Q: What are you writing now? What’s next?
Saturday, December 7, I wrote the last words of the first draft of Pernicious Poll. It’s about North Carolina’s new harsh voting law, which in its effects is quite discriminatory against African Americans and the poor.
I hope to get the very first mystery I wrote out next. I’ve revised The Sands of Gower, and I think readers will like to go back to when Penny met Kenneth. Tormentil Hall, which comes after Farm Fresh, also takes place on Gower in Wales, and I think the readers need the first novel to enjoy fully the eighth. My publishing sequence is going to be mixed up, but that’s already true.
Q: Many people look forward to leaving their day job and writing mysteries as a second (or even primary) career. What’s the single most important advice you give the person who wants to become a mystery writer?
Love doing it, do it because it makes you happy, whether you sell it or not. Write what you wish to write–the advice of Virginia Woolf, Louise Penny, Carolyn Hart, Elizabeth George. Go for broke, and then get good feedback you trust. It might be a group, or one person. I didn’t find that critique groups worked for me, but I now have two readers. Both love to read mysteries, both are honest but essentially like what I do. That is helping tremendously. They find the things I miss or didn’t make clear. Of course, read good books. The best models make the best writers.
Q: What have been the most satisfying comments on Farm Fresh and Fatal?
I was fortunate to have a blurb from Carolyn Hart: “Farm Fresh and Fatal features an appealing protagonist, an intriguing background, and well-realized characters. Readers will enjoy these characters and empathize with their successes and failures. In the tradition of Margaret Maron.”
A writer friend of mine, Sharon Ewing, wrote one. Your close friends sometimes aren’t that impressed with your writing, but Sharon reviewed the book, quite thoughtfully and appreciatively, on Amazon. She said, “The first sentence of the book plunges into the action that will carry the reader to the fast-paced turns and twists of the final chapter.”
Then recently, November 30, Ruth Moose reviewed it in a little paper in Southern Pines, The Pilot. She wrote, “Hogan writes with passion and knowledge about genetically modified foods that can produce ‘tomatoes that bounce like ping pong balls,’ and the community of those who know and love the earth.” She made my day. Newspaper reviews are hard to get in these times. You can read the full review at http://www.thepilot.com/search/?t=article&s=start_time&sd=desc&d1=5+years+ago&q=Book+Review%3A+Farm+Fresh+and+Fatal.
Judy, thanks you for sharing your expertise.
For information on ordering autographed copies of her mysteries and poetry, email judyhogan at mindspring.com or visit her website (http://judyhogan.home.mindspring.com) or blog (http://postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com).
Copies of her mysteries (in paper and e-book format) are available from major online bookstores and mainlymurderpress.com
Copies of Beaver Soul may be ordered from Amazon (search Finishing Line Press chapbooks) and Finishing Line Press.
Reviewer Calls Characters Appealing, Story Compelling
Dozens of editors and publishers have rejected my nonfiction and (especially) fiction manuscripts over the years, so forgive me if I report some reassuring praise.
In the February issue of Gumshoe Review Magazine of Mystery Literature, reviewer Verna Suit ended her review of Show Me the Murder with, “Phoenix is a can-do heroine and all three of the women are appealing characters. The reader cheers when Annalynn steps up to take control of her life. Plot and setting are convincing and the compelling story keeps one reading. I look forward to finding out what the future has in store for all three of them.”
The 15 other books reviewed in the issue included Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King, Calculated by Death by J.D. Robb, and Buried in a Bog by Sheila Connolly.
To read the full review of Show Me the Murder, go to http://www.gumshoereview.com/php/Review-id.php?id=3558.
How Elizabeth Peters Found Amelia Peabody’s Voice
A group of mystery writers celebrated Elizabeth Peters by playing the major characters in her beloved Amelia Peabody series during a skit at the 2012 Malice Domestic Convention. Ms. Peters (Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, aka Barbara Michaels) played straight woman but occasionally demonstrated her distinctive wit.
Twenty years ago I interviewed her about how she created the strong-willed Victorian archaeologist and found her distinctive voice. A shortened version of the article follows. It appeared in the January 1992 issue of Writing Concepts.
Mastering the writing style of another era requires care, Mertz says. “When the heroine was speaking, I had to have a certain speech pattern, which was more formal and more melodramatic than the modern pattern.”
While remaining ever aware of being true to the period, she doesn’t check every word. “I was not pedantic enough to look up words in the OED to see if they were in use at that point. Every now and then I get caught, of course.”
She’s particularly conscious of idioms. “If I am in doubt about one, if it strikes oddly on my ear—and I think that comes from having read so much—I’ll either change it or try to verify it. There are an awful lot of slang words and expressions that were in use much earlier than we think.” Novels of the period proved more useful in researching speech and daily life than books on social history. Her research and leisure reading merged as she sought Amelia’s voice.
The writer set out to create a traditional Victorian lady traveler and speak with her voice. “I went through every travel book from that period, especially ones written by women, and novels.” She read, among other novelists, Charles Dickens, Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I love doing a very pompous Victorian voice. That is the way these people wrote,” Mertz says. “I love caricaturing it. I think it comes out as being amusing because it is caricature, but Amelia means it very seriously, and most of the things she says, I mean to.”
Mertz strives to be as historically accurate as possible but avoids extraneous historical details. “It’s tempting when you find something that’s awfully interesting to just dump it in to entertain the reader and show how smart you are, but unless it’s usable in the plot, you shouldn’t have it in there.”
She expresses great respect for writing as a craft. She says, “I will never learn everything there is to know about this business. I will never write the book I really want to write, but every time I’m a littler closer and know a little bit more about why I’m doing things.”
Between the standing ovations that greeted Elizabeth Peters and bid her farewell at Malice, she revealed that she is now on chapter five of a new manuscript.
An Interview with Elizabeth (the Great) Peters
Mystery fans are honoring Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, best known to them as Elizabeth Peters, author of the beloved Amelia Peabody mystery series featuring a strong-minded early archaeologist. Fellow authors will interview Barbara April 28 at the annual Malice Domestic Convention.
That reminded me that I interviewed her 20 years ago on how she made the transition from academic to accessible and entertaining nonfiction (look for Red Land, Black Land) and from nonfiction to genre fiction, first Gothics as Barbara Michaels and then mysteries as Elizabeth Peters. At that time (1991) she already had 50 books to her credit.
What she told me still applies, so a shortened version of the first of my two articles follows. It appeared in Writing Concepts, December 1991, under the head “Egyptologist tells how she writes as two novelists.”
Today Barbara Mertz is better known as Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, the authors of bestselling novels noted for strong story lines, well-defined characters, accurate settings and serious themes both masked and emphasized by humor.
Thinking back to the beginning of her writing career and the development of her writing style, Mertz says, “I’m a big reader. I think that’s probably the most important thing for anyone who writes—reading enormously. You end up being imitative at various stages of your life. You imitate the writers you admire. I think that’s a useful stage, too. It teaches you some of the techniques of syntax and how to get an idea across. And eventually, one hopes, you develop your own style.”
Developing your voice takes time. She found hers in nonfiction much more easily than she did in fiction. Publishers rejected her first novels. She says, “I had not found my voice. It’s a rather pretentious terms, but I think it’s true that there’s a certain kind of thing that each person does well, and you can mess around trying this and trying that.”
You also need to learn what works, and sells, in your preferred genre. Mertz says, “You have this awful crisis between writing for the market and being totally cynical, giving up what you like to do just to sell something. … I think you have to consider the market, but I just don’t think anyone can write his or her best by playing solely to the market.
She broke in with traditional Gothics—“Victorian settings and spirits and haunted castles and that sort of thing.” Once established, she moved to modern settings and wandered from the formula. She found the restraint on humor frustrating.
So she became Elizabeth Peters, a mystery writer noted for her humor. The styles and content produced under the two names differ enough that many readers don’t realize that Michaels and Peters are the same person. Yet Mertz says she doesn’t consciously make her writing style fit the pseudonym.
Michaels and Peter strike different tones. “Peters is a lot sillier,” Mertz says. “I am more sarcastic, and the dialogue is, shall we say, sappier and more sardonic. The whole tone of the books, the commentary, is humorous, but I’m still talking about serious things. Most of the things I’m saying, whether they’re hidden under a guise of humor or not, are serious ideas. Definitely the Michaels books are more serious in tone. Peters makes fun of everything—of pomposity, of staid ideas, of prejudice.”