Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Interview With a Character

Magistrate: What is your name, ma'am?
Ellen: Ellen Kauffman.
Magistrate: And your age?
Ellen: (frowning): Is it necessary to this interview?
Magistrate: For my records--yes.
Ellen: Very well. I was born in 1863.
Magistrate: Thank you (he does math on a scrap of paper). How long have you lived in the village?
Ellen (pausing a moment to consider): Nearly five years. I operate the general store. Well, I do now. Since my husband's death.
Magistrate: Your husband is deceased?
Ellen (nods)
Magistrate: My condolences, Mrs. Kauffman. How long have you known the accused, Ned Gebhardt?
Ellen: Ever since we moved to the village. That poor boy..."
Magistrate: Yes. And you believe him innocent of the crime?
Ellen: I'm not alone in that.
Magistrate (waving a hand in the air): I'm aware of the stepsister. I can understand her loyalty to the boy. But, what about you? What makes you think Gebhardt isn't a cold-hearted killer?
Ellen (raising her voice) : Because I know him. He's not the monster some would have you believe. He's a sad, gentle boy who doesn't have it in him to harm another person--especially not Susie. He loved her. He could not have done those terrible things.

Magistrate (looking stern): There's a rumor--uh. A rumor you are romantically involved with Detective Roth. Is it true?
Ellen (frowning again): I don't see what that has to do with anything. It's none of your business.
Magistrate: I'm afraid it is. For reasons I'll get to in a moment. Is the rumor true?
Ellen (blushes): We've only known one another a short time. I'll admit, we have become friends and allies in the effort to assure a fair trial for Ned.
Magistrate: Yes, that's my problem, Mrs. Kauffman. Do you think his feelings for you have influenced his position on the case?
Ellen: I do not. Simon is an honest, good man and he will put his job before personal feelings. If he finds evidence, he will present it to the court without hesitation. But, you know yourself, there are other suspects. Simon is investigating them, too, though no one else seems to care.
This is a short interview with a primary character from Something So Divine. Here's the blurb for the novel:
When a young girl is found murdered in a Pennsylvania rye field in the autumn of 1897, Ned Gebhardt, a feeble-minded youth known to have stalked the victim, is the prime suspect.

Evidence against Ned is circumstantial and there are other suspects. Influenced by the opinions of Ned’s stepsister and Ellen, a woman who has perked his interest, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt. Then he discovers damaging evidence. 

Still unwilling to view Ned as a cold-blooded killer, Roth puts his job and reputation in jeopardy as he seeks to assure a fair trial for the accused.
The novel is available in both print and electronic formats from the publisher, Sunbury Press (http://www.sunburypressstore.com/Something-So-Divine-9781620066126.htm); Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers.
Care to read more and see reviews? Go to https://www.amazon.com/Something-So-Divine-J-Lindermuth-ebook/dp/B014NG03OO?ie=UTF8&qid=1469466956&ref_=la_B002BLJIQ8_1_3&s=books&sr=1-3#nav-subnav



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Some Recommended Women Mystery Writers

The first female detective novel was written by a man, James Redding Ware, in 1864. It was another two decades before Anna Katherine Green (I've written about her before) and some other pioneers broke the ice and women became known as both the authors and protagonists of the mystery genre.
Now in the heat of summer as some of you may be seeking books to read, I thought it might be fun to name some of my favorite women writers and what I like about them. Personally, I don't care about the gender of a writer; my only concern is the books. I read widely and these are not the only women I read, so if your favorite isn't on my list it doesn't mean I think her unworthy. Also, my list is not in order of preference, but just a random listing as I think about them.
Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (1930-2015) is at the top of my pantheon of favorite women writers. She varies from tightly knit psychological novels to the more cozy-style Inspector Wexford series. Some favorites: A Sight For Sore Eyes, a Rendell standalone; Kissing the Gunner's Daughter (Wexford) and The Chimney Sweeper's Boy (Vine).
Patricia Highsmith, (1921-1995) the American grande dame of psychological thrillers. The Ripley books are probably the best known now and worth a read. My personal choice though would be either Strangers on a Train, her first novel, or The Cry of the Owl.
Elizabeth George, (1949-) an American who writes the Inspector Lynley series set in Britain. Lynley is an interesting character, an aristocrat who chooses to work in the sordid crime world of the police. Still, as a character, I prefer his junior officer Barbara Havers, feisty and disorderly, but dedicated to the work. As to books, you can't go wrong with the first in the series, A Great Deliverance.
Val McDermid (1955-), a Scottish crime writer with three series going--Dr. Tony Hill series, Kate Branigan series and Lindsay Gordon series. My preferred of her work, though, are two standalone novels, A Darker Domain and A Place of Execution.
Rebecca Stott (1964) has only published two crime novels to date, Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief. Ghostwalk, the only one of the two I've read so far, was shortlisted for the Jelf First Novel award and the Society of Authors first novel award. The New York Times compared her to Borge and Edgar Allan Poe, which seems right on to me.
Kate Atkinson (1951-), another Brit, who writes (among other things) the Jackson Brodie series. I've only read two of the books to date and Started Early, Took My Dog stands out as another quirky favorite for its wit, characterization and surprises.
Karin Fossum (1954), billed as the 'Norwegian Queen of Crime' makes the list for her Inspector Sejer series. Fossum, who began as a poet, has about a dozen books in the series to date. My choice, Bad Intentions.
Caroline Graham (1931-) is best known for her Chief Inspector Barnaby series (produced for TV as Midsomer Murders). She also has a quirky style that amuses me. I've liked The Ghost in the Machine and Faithful Unto Death, among others.
Sophie Hannah (1971-) is a British poet and novelist. I love her Waterhouse and Zailer series. A fav being Kind of Cruel, which will confuse and amuse you.
Laura Lippman (1959-), a Baltimore-based journalist turned novelist. Her Tess Monaghan series has been a hit since its debut in 1997. But, don't miss her standalone novels either, especially After I'm Gone and The Most Dangerous Thing.
Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), a Pennsylvania-native, is often referred to as the "American Agatha Christie." During her long career, she penned three series, some 30-standalones, 10 short story collections and a dozen or more plays. Rather than tossing a coin to decide which to read, I'd recommend her first book, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies and propelled her to fame.
Finally, a writer I only recently discovered: Tana French (1973-), an Irish writer/actor whose talent blew me away when I read my first of her novels. To date I've read: Faithful Place, Broken Harbour and The Secret Place. Her novel In the Woods won an Edgar in 2008 for Best First Novel.

I could have recommended many more, but there has to be a limit in a blog. I also know this list comprises writers who have already achieved a modicum of fame. In recompense, sometime in the near future I'll compile a list of lesser-known women writers who've intrigued me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Curiosity--it Might Have Killed The Cat, But It's Vital For Writers

It's generally agreed, when our ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world they were driven by concerns of  climate and population growth. I believe another reason needs to be considered--curiosity.

The innate curiosity of our species has been responsible for every advance, development, discovery you might consider. Have you heard the story about Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye with a needle? He did it as a scientific experiment. I'd say that's carrying curiosity to the extreme. Still, without curiosity, there can be no driving force.

Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind. Samuel Johnson

Curiosity is immensely important to writers, too. It fires our imagination, makes us ask--what if?.. Come on, admit it, you're as nosey as me. All writers eaves-drop. Well, we do, don't we? I know I've got my fill of story ideas and other useful details that way.

We have seen that central among the traits that define a creative person are two somewhat opposed tendencies: a great deal of curiosity and openness on the one hand, and an almost obsessive perseverance on the other. Both of these have to be present for a person to have fresh ideas and then to make them prevail. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity

All children come with curiosity. They want to touch, taste, smell, eat every little thing they can grab in their sticky little fingers. They're also trying to understand this world they've been born into. Asking questions: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do here? Why is that geek making faces and speaking gibberish to me?

It's all part of the learning process--the importance of which doesn't diminish with age.

For many adults, curiosity begins to dim in the wake of other, more worldly concerns. For writers, it's important for us to preserve our sense of curiosity, even enhance it if we can.
I'm not suggesting you turn yourself in a Miss Marple. But, if something sparks your interest, chase it and see where it may lead you.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Seeing for Oneself: Autopsies in the 19th Century

My topic today is a rather grim one--autopsies, particularly forensic autopsies, in the 19th century.
An autopsy occurs in my latest novel, Something So Divine, set in 1897 rural Pennsylvania. They also occur in several of my other historical mysteries, Fallen From Grace and Sooner Than Gold. So, research on the subject was vital to my stories.

Dr. Hackett, still wearing the same rumpled suit as the day before, scowled at Roth as he entered the small shed attached to the side of the hospital. As always, Roth was surprised to find the room well lit and orderly. Two corpses were laid out on kitchen tables. The windows of the room were thrown wide open, but the movement of a flow of air couldn't disguise the fact one of the subjects awaiting autopsy was fresher than the other. (from Something So Divine)

The term 'autopsy' (derived from Greek: "seeing for oneself") has been used since the 17th century, though the practice may date back to the ancient Egyptians. Great strides had been made prior to the 19th century when Rudolf Virchow, a German now known as the "father of pathology," standardized protocol and procedures.

The late 19th century and early 20th century are considered by some the Golden Age of the autopsy, primarily due to medical advances. In the 19th century, the power of the physician toward a dead body (and relatives) was enormous.

There are now two types of autopsies: clinical, which is a pathological procedure to determine cause of death and generally requires permission of a family, and forensic, which seeks answers to questions of interest to the legal system. This latter is my focus here.

As early as 1897, intent was to conduct an autopsy as soon as possible, from an hour to 10 hours after the death. This was intended, both, to preserve tissue and organs and to return the remains to the family as quickly as possible.

The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported in 1897 some pathologists recommended preserving soft body parts in formaldehyde so they could be presented in court where they "...would often convey much more meaning to the average jury than lengthy technical descriptions."

The journal also acknowledges that in the late 19th century autopsies were at the discretion of the medical examiner who made his decision after viewing the body and holding an inquiry. For sanitary reasons, it was recommended cadavers should be held in a location isolated from living medical patients.

Some authorities in Europe (where the greatest strides were being made) were critical of American physicians who they considered careless and indifferent to the deceased, which could lead to no autopsy being conducted or one that was less discerning.

It would be wrong to paint all physicians here with the same brush. Many were competent and thorough in their examinations, basing their work on the latest scientific knowledge. Technical innovations, such as the improvement to the microscope were a significant aid to their findings.

Unfortunately, not all autopsies were conducted in separate hospital facilities where sanitary conditions were more likely to exist. Depending on the location and what was available to the examiner, autopsies could and were performed in deplorable locations, a private house, an old shed or even barn and other places.

Generally, wherever it was to be conducted, there were recommendations for equipping the site. A sturdy kitchen table or a door set upon supports was primary as work station. The room was to be well-lighted, as large as possible and with any windows thrown wide open. Other equipment included wash buckets and pails, a plentiful supply of hot and cold water, a bottle of carbolic acid, turpentine, carbolic linseed oil and other solutions, clean rags, newspapers, sponges, soap and towels. Despite the risk, few surgeons of the time wore rubber gloves, which didn't come into general use until the 1920s.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Man Who Didn't Want to be Known.

Would you like to be recognized as a writer? Or, would you rather have your books recognized and read?

Tough choice, isn't it? It's human nature to want a pat on the back for a job well done. You've put a lot of time and sweat into writing your novel. Certainly you'd like someone to appreciate what you've achieved. Some might call it egotism, and it is. Still, that's not a totally bad thing. As long as it doesn't get out of hand, ego is important in building self-confidence--something all artists need and often lack.

On the other hand, we all want our books to be read. There's joy in walking into a library or a store and seeing your books on the shelves--especially if they're being borrowed or purchased. Isn't that a primary reason we write books, produce art or do anything creative?

We're all familiar with some writers who produce great books, whose names are recognized, yet give no or few interviews and limit marketing activities to the minimum. In our time, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, among others, come to mind.

How about B. Traven?

A man who said, "An author should have no other biography than his books." And, "The biography of a creative man is completely unimportant."

Traven, whose personal history raises as many questions as answers, assumed many other names in various phases of his life. There have been claims he was an American, born in Chicago, and that he was Ret Marut, German anarchist, who fled Germany for a new life in Mexico. Some speculation has Jack London and Ambrose Bierce using the Traven name as a pseudonym. There's even a rumor he was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But none of that has to do with his success as a writer. His first writings as B. Traven appeared in 1925--a short story and a novel--published in Germany.

His best known work (though not his best) is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Ten of his works have been translated to the big screen, though "Treasure.." was Hollywood's lone attempt. The others were produced in Mexico and Germany.

It wasn't this book/film that made his name synonymous with good writing. That came with publication of his second novel, "The Death Ship," first published in Germany in 1926. A Spanish edition was published in 1931 and it came out a third time in English in 1934.

Since then, his books have been translated to some 40 languages, he continues to be read around the world, and new editions of his work are still being published.

Would Traven's technique of putting all attention on the book and none on himself work today?
Doubtful. Unless you're already famous or your background is so mysterious or weird as to make you a celebrity without trying.

Publishers, agents and other experts tell us we must 'brand' both ourselves and our books in order to achieve sales. There's so much good competition out there today. It's no longer a matter of do I want to market or not. Marketing is too important to ignore.


So get out there and market.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Words Aren't Enough

"The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete."  (The Elements of Style  by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White)
As writers, we all want our words to be understood. The same holds true for a person speaking to another. In a face-to-face conversation, the task of achieving clarity is made a little easier by means of facial expression and gestures we understand and which convey the speaker's meaning.
"There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare.
 Those aides are missing in a phone conversation, in texting and emailing and, often, in writing and can contribute to misunderstanding.
Despite our reliance on them, words can't always express the full measure of what we mean to say. That's because there are so many nuances attached to a particular word and what we mean it to convey. This becomes even more difficult when you consider translating from one language to another.
One way to assure clarity is to bring in those expressions and gestures I mentioned above.
Here's a brief example from the master, Elmore Leonard (Road Dogs):
He watched the bank robber shrug, watched him pick up his glass and take a drink.
"You're having a good time poking around," Foley said, "trying to find out what I'm up to, aren't you?"
"I enjoy talking to you," Tico said, "one bank robber to another, uh?" and waited for Jack Foley to see he was being funny.
He did, but smiled only a moment.
And a longer one from Stephen King (The Hotel Story from On Writing):
Olin looked pained. For a moment he glanced around the small, smart lobby, as if for help. At the concierge's stand, a man was discussing theater tickets with his wife while the concierge himself watched with a small, patient smile. At the front desk, a man with the rumpled look one only got after long hours in Business Class was discussing his reservation with a woman in a smart black suit that could itself have doubled for evening wear. It was business as usual at the Hotel Dolphin. There was help for everyone except poor Olin, who had fallen into the writer's clutches.
"Olin?" Mike repeated.
No question of what's going on in either case.
And, finally, one from my own Something So Divine:
"Why were you watching out for her? Did you think someone wanted to hurt her?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer. He turned his gaze away.
Behind them a chair squeaked, and Roth heard the scratching of the clerk's and the reporter's pens on their notebooks.
"Ned. Ned, look at me. Somebody did hurt Susie. Was it you, Ned?"
The boy brushed a shock of hair away from his eyes and shook his head. He peered steadily at Roth. He blinked, and tears ran down his cheeks. "She was my friend. I loved Susie."
"Do you know what happened to her up in that field?"
Ned slowly shook his head from side to side.



Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Idea is Just the Germ of a Story

Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer is easy: ideas are all around us.

You discover them in what your read, what you hear (writers are notorious eavesdroppers), in what you see, and so many other places. But an idea is not a story. An idea is the germ of a story. It's what gets you asking, "what if..."

The next step in the process is creating character(s), a plot and a story location. There has been argument over which is more important--character or plot. In my opinion, they're equally important. You can't have one without the other.

For instance, you want your main characters to have substance, not be paper cutouts. Readers can relate to a realistically portrayed character. So how do you do that? You give them lives. You describe them, their characteristics, their personalities. Many readers are turned off by two much description. Some want no description of a character so they can employ their imagination as to the character's appearance. My feeling is it's your story. Their imagination may not match your vision. That's why I prefer to describe my key characters.

Others will quote Elmore Leonard's famous 10 Rules for Good Writing, citing Rules 8 and 9, which tell you to avoid detailed descriptions of characters and not to go into great details describing places and things. The important points are "detailed" and "great details." He doesn't say don't describe. Read Leonard to see how he subtly introduces characters and place, so aptly we feel we'd recognize the character anywhere and know the place even if we've never been there.

So you don't want to give them everything about your character in one lump. Introduce details gradually throughout your narrative.

Now, as to plot, this is the narrative of your story. It introduces the crime, the detective, the investigation, discovery of the motive(s) and, eventually, the identity of the culprit. Some mysteries disclose the identity of the killer at the beginning, but I think that takes the fun out of the story for many readers. Most like to try and outsmart the writer, determining the identity of the criminal before it's disclosed by the writer. Traditionally, mysteries started as this type of puzzle, providing clues through the narrative to lead the reader to the conclusion. Being the sneaky people we are, we throw in red herrings (misleading clues) to throw the reader off the track as well as sub-plots to add a little more substance to the story.

This is how an idea becomes a story.