Another New Year’s Free Chapter

Exactly one year ago I offered readers a free chapter from Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. That blog linked to two other free chapters, and I joked that at this rate a reader could get the entire book for free . . . in about twenty years.

So, for the New Year, I’m offering another free chapter, making it four altogether. (To see the other free chapters, click on Minor Gift: A Free Chapter.)

7 Setting, Including Scene of the Crime

Some writers are great at creating setting, others are indifferent to it. Some are great at all three aspects of setting, some at one or perhaps two. This reflects how different we all are. Some of us are very conscious about clothing styles, others aren’t. Some of us are always au courant with the latest slang or buzz words, others aren’t. Some observe architecture, or trees, or house interiors in detail. Others don’t.

But no matter what we’re like in real life, in the world of fiction it’s necessary for a writer to be aware of setting — of creating it and maintaining it. Of making it come alive for the reader. For the fact is, one of the great vicarious pleasures readers get from fiction is the pleasure of setting: people enjoy learning about other places, other times, and other cultures through fiction.

Setting: Place, Time, Culture
Setting consists of the place or spot where a story takes place; the time when it takes place; and the culture in which it takes place. A mystery could take place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. That’s the spot on Earth where the story is set. (Stories need not be set on Earth, of course.) The story could take place now, in the 21st century. Or it could take place in the 19th century, during the days of the Underground Railroad. Or earlier, during the days of the French and Indian War. Or even earlier, when Indian tribes lived free of Europeans.

The cultural setting could be any of the above-mentioned. It could be Dutch-Americans whose families have lived in the region for over 200 years. It could be about criminals who run meth labs. It could be about amusement park owners.

In mystery novels as in other novels, these three aspects of setting can be equally developed, or one or two can be developed more than the others. But I can’t imagine a novel in which they wouldn’t all be present.

Dirty Proof takes place in the 1970s, in Chicago, in the culture of the newspaper publishing industry: mainly in the composing room, where typesetters worked.

Sound Proof, as you know by now, takes place in the current era (say early 21st century) in Iroquois County, Illinois, on a farm during an old-time music festival called Midwest Music Madness. The culture it takes place in is the culture of folk music or, more specifically, what’s called old-time music (the kind of music played by the Carter Family and by Doc Watson and John Hartford, for example).

As I explained in an earlier chapter, setting is very important to me, and it comes to me at the same time as do plot and character. In the very first page of Sound Proof, the culture aspect of the setting is prominent:

     Shelby Stubbs stepped onto a bale of straw and looked down on the group of musicians. I leaned against a porch rail and watched everything in sight. Even Stubbs, though he wasn’t the thief.
     Stubbs hooked a thumb through his belt, puffed out his chest, and repeated his announcement. “No sir. Absolutely not.” This was directed at Vance Jurasek, who was balancing a string bass on its endpin. “Only fiddles, guitars, and banjos,” Stubbs lectured. “No other instruments allowed. That’s ‘cause no other instruments belong.”
     “You’re kidding.” Jurasek settled his bass against the rail and scowled.
     “No sir. You don’t see a bass in old-time music. It’s not traditional. You never saw an old-time player carrying a bass around. No bass in my class.”

Researching Setting
In developing setting you might end up doing research in several different ways: travel, internet, library, or others. If your mystery is set in the past you’re probably aware that today there are wonderful web sites through which a visitor can see photos of buildings, rooms, clothing, and many other artifacts of previous eras. Research your setting well before you actually sit down to write — that way, details about the setting will be in your mind and will emerge in your writing. It’s easier to feel yourself inside the setting from the start, rather than to have to “add” setting during the rewrite. The first is organic, the second artificial.

Speaking of setting and research, let me say that a wise and conscientious writer researches any aspect of his novel that he isn’t 100% certain about. Take, for example, the murder weapon. If it’s a gun, you had better be certain what kind of gun it is and how it works. Readers will know instantly if you’ve said something wrong about the gun. The same is true for poisons or any murder method: research it first . . . in books, articles, or online. If you can, interview experts on the subject.

Back to setting. I’ve already told you that Sound Proof sprang out of the fact that I accompanied my husband to many old-time music festivals and observed and absorbed what I saw and heard. As for the farm aspect of the setting, I spent most of my childhood on a dairy farm in Ohio. But Ohio is not Illinois, and so before I began to write Sound Proof I traveled to Iroquois County, Illinois. I drove up and down the rural roads. I drove through the towns. I ate lunch in one of them. I jotted down notes on the town buildings, the railroads, the bus depots, the barns, the silos, the fields, the farmhouses, the drainage ditches. I took photos. I typed notes and printed them out and had them alongside me as I wrote, so that I could incorporate them throughout the book.

There is, however, a great danger in having copious notes on any single aspect of your story. The danger is that because you did the work garnering this information, and because you are excited about it, you will cram it into your novel.

Don’t.

Readers like details. They like a setting to come alive for them. But what they really, really love is dialogue and action. Setting is neither dialogue nor action. So use what you know about your setting sensibly.

Below is a single page from my four single-spaced pages of Iroquois County research notes. The observations in boldfaced type are the ones I used as part of the setting — the others I didn’t use at all. I hope this drives home the point that research results work best when used selectively.

cupolas on barns, even on sheds and on police station
third-floor of a farmhouse has stained glass windows
saloon with Bud Light sign overhead and Old Style sign on side
saloon made of red brick
hip roof with cupola
saloon serves burgers and beer
post office is on Main Street
saloon is on Main Street
pickup trucks, most of them American makes
black-eyed susans everywhere
many, many pole barns in addition to the main barns
abandoned buildings
grain storage silos
L-shaped porches on many farmhouses
Depot Street, Church Street, Main Street
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th streets
circle of rocks in ditch, probably thrown out of the field by a farmer
lots of one-and-a-half-lane dirt roads, especially running alongside cornfields

Sketching Setting
One other thing I did in developing the setting for Sound Proof was to draw a sketch showing me where the buildings were in relationship to one another.

setting

I kept this sketch alongside my desk while I wrote perhaps the first third of the book. Soon I knew Mary’s farm and the festival grounds so well that I didn’t need the sketch: the mental image was imprinted on my brain.

In writing Dirty Proof I had no such sketch. That’s because Dirty Proof took place in a wide variety of places within Chicago, and Chicago is a real place. Mary Ployd’s farm, however, is not real. With an invented setting, the temptation is to write the story and occasionally throw in something about the surroundings. But I felt that method wouldn’t bring the setting to life. Because the story is told in the first-person point of view, I wanted to imagine what Frank Dragovic would see as he walked the grounds.

Here are three examples of how setting appears in Sound Proof.

     Mary’s barn brought back these memories. Entering her barn through the south side, I noticed that all six double doors — south, east, and north — were rolled back, the few windows propped open with sticks. The entire bottom floor hosted the old-time ensemble class. Clustered around a pine stage built against the north wall, most of the students perched on rusty folding chairs. Others took a big chance with chairs cobbled together out of branches and twigs. I suspected Mary might host a rustic furniture festival during the winter.

•     •     •

     Like the outbuildings, the barn was aligned with its long sides facing east and west. Along its old stone perimeter I looked for possible hiding places, checking for chinks below, loose boards above. If I were the thief, I’d swipe an instrument and hide it immediately, so I couldn’t be caught with it.
     Mary’s barn was in serious need of painting. Its weathered gray wood was probably last painted when Bob Dylan was a teen. Back in Chicago the aged siding would fetch a fortune as ambience in a restaurant or private home. The barn’s east wall faced a small creek, Raccoon Run. No hiding places I could see. And the south wall was unlikely because it could be seen from the dining hall. High above me, below the peak of the gambrel roof, the hayloft door stood open. Music from a guitar class drifted down.

•     •     •

     No time for a shower. I wondered which was more socially unacceptable: showing up late the first day of class, or smelling like a pig sty. Wafting eau de swine in all directions, I hurried toward the pole barn.
     Farmers like my Uncle Rudy and whoever had owned Mary’s land before her constructed pole barns quickly and cheaply: one story high, gable roof, round poles as the main structural support, siding hung from two-by-fours. The life expectancy of such barns was thirty or forty years: a one-generation solution to hay and machine storage problems. Mary’s pole barn, its two short sides sagging toward each other, stood at the brink of its life cycle. One long side slumped on its own door, and a lone, dust-covered window blended in with the weathered wood.
     Between the pigpen and the pole barn, clumps of butterfly milkweed still bloomed in the blazing sun. I wondered if Mary had considered restoring these few acres to prairie: it could be an additional attraction of her festival.

In each of these paragraphs I as the writer knew where Frank was within the setting and what he saw. Having the sketch helped me.

By the time I got to the storm scene in chapter eighteen (a critical situation that reveals much about the various characters and leads to a partial solution to one of the mysteries), I knew my setting so well that I could feel Frank moving through it.

     “Attention, attention!” she continued. “Fonnie Sheffler is missing from the old-time ensemble group.”
     There was a general shuffling, people looking left and right and all around, as if the missing person had simply failed to report to the right group. During these few seconds of confusion Fonnie herself staggered in through the southern doors. “Where were you?” demanded Vance. “We were worried about you.”
     “Sorry,” she gasped. “I wanted to secure my camper.” She struggled for more breath. “It’s really bad out there.”
     “Fonnie has been found!” shouted Mary. “Lafayette Wafer is also missing from the old-time ensemble group. Has anybody seen Lafayette?”
     We looked around again, and then we looked toward the south door, as if Lafayette would repeat Fonnie’s trick of appearing out of the blue. In this case the black.
     Once it was clear that Lafayette wasn’t there, Mary asked if anybody knew where he was. Voices offered facts, opinions, judgments.
     “I saw him around four o’clock,” Cindy called out. “He said a tune was calling him.”
     “That’s right,” shouted Vance. “He was heading toward the big tree by the creek.”
     “But it was already starting to rain,” Cindy yelled. “He might have gone to the pole barn.”
     Mary repeated these remarks to all over the microphone and asked if any of us had seen Lafayette after that time. Hearing her was becoming more and more difficult in the thunder. I walked over to Suzanne and took the flashlight and first-aid kit from her backpack. She had packed our rain jackets and I pulled mine on.
     “Where are you going?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice.
     “The pole barn.”
     “No!” She grabbed my arm. “Frank, don’t go.”
     I shook my head. “I’ve got to.”
     “For who?” demanded Booker, watching me. “Lafayette?”
     I stuffed the first-aid kit in a pocket and gripped the flashlight.
     “Don’t do it, man.” Booker placed a hand on my shoulder. “It’s too dangerous.”
     I moved to leave but Booker pushed me back. “No! Let the little rat drown! He doesn’t deserve saving.”

Knowing the physical setting well helped me write this scene. And knowing the setting also helped Frank find his way back from the pole barn. Setting is not just something a writer puts into a book: it’s something the book’s characters live in. That’s why it’s important for you to make the setting visible to the reader. And I mean cultural setting as well as physical setting.

Connections with Setting
Setting is connected to the story experience in three different ways. First there’s the connection between the writer and the setting. The writer works to make the setting come alive, especially since readers love learning vicariously.

Second, there’s the connection between the reader and the setting. Readers want to experience the setting of a book, particularly if it’s a world they know little about (as is, for example, the world of old-time music). But readers in general don’t want long descriptions of setting, so writers work to bring the setting to life in ways other than long descriptions. I’ll discuss how this is done in the chapter on description.

Third, there’s the connection between the characters and the setting, particularly between the protagonist and the setting. Is the setting in the protagonist’s wheelhouse, so to speak? Does he know it well, function in it well? Or is he a fish out of water, totally lost in this setting? The connection between the hero and the setting is important for you to consider, because it will determine the hero’s attitude and actions and observations and maybe even success or failure.

In writing Sound Proof I wanted Frank Dragovic to be unfamiliar with old-time music (though Suzanne is familiar with it). In a way, I was giving him a handicap in solving the murder of an old-time musician, probably by an old-time musician. Frank is an outsider with no knowledge of musical terms or traditions or fingerings of stringed instruments. It’s good to give your characters weaknesses, sometimes several kinds of weaknesses. Admittedly, not knowing old-time music isn’t considered much of a weakness by most people, but it does put Frank at a disadvantage, and that makes him more human. It also means that some of the characters who do know old-time music will underestimate Frank’s abilities: humans have a tendency to think that those inside a particular group are better or smarter than those outside it.

At the same time, I didn’t want to make Frank an outsider to everything except detection, so I made him familiar with farms and barns and farm animals. Even though he’s a city person, born and raised in Chicago, I had him spend his summers on his uncle’s farm in Galesburg, Illinois. Because of this Frank moves through the setting confidently and comfortably, and this means he can spend his psychic energy observing what he as a detective needs to observe.

I notice that in my first novel I also made Frank an outsider to typesetting and the composing room. It could be that I like to treat the reader to unusual settings and place my hero in unusual settings — just so that, despite the setting, he can triumph.

Scene of the Crime
In some mysteries the scene of the crime is more important than in others. Police procedurals, for example, often give minute details about the scene of the crime because it’s the job of the crime scene specialists to gather evidence that will help detectives interpret the way the crime was committed and what kind of person did it. If you read police procedurals, you’ll be familiar with how scene-of-the-crime is developed. Many thrillers also show and develop scene-of-the-crime details.

Whether those who write private eye or amateur detective fiction need to develop the scene of the crime depends on the answer to a question I raised earlier in this book: does the crime occur during the course of the novel, or has it already occurred when the book opens? In Dirty Proof the murder of Ralph Blasingame has already occurred before the first page of the novel. But any self-respecting detective would want to investigate the scene of the crime, even if the crime had occurred months or years ago. One of the first things Frank does in Dirty Proof is walk through the scene of the crime. In doing so he reaches certain conclusions about the murder.

In Sound Proof the murder occurs at the end of the first day of the five-day music festival, so in this book I needed to show the scene of the crime. In order to do so I had to know what the physical place of the crime looked like. I had to know (of course!) who the killer was and how he committed the crime. I had to know (and this is visually important) what people who entered the scene of the crime would see. And: I had to plant important clues and/or important misdirections — pieces of the scene that might lead the protagonist and/or the police in the wrong direction.

Here’s how the reader experiences the scene of the crime in Sound Proof, through the eyes of Frank Dragovic.

     The moaning came from Bliss.
     Shelby Stubbs lay on the couch of his RV, his head smashed in, blood splattered on both couch and wall. I checked his pulse just to make sure. Dead. The body was still warm, but on a night like this that meant little.
     Only two places to sit: up front in the driver and passenger compartments, or in the dinette directly across from Stubbs’ body. I moved Bliss toward the front of the vehicle, pulled aside the pleated curtains separating the front from the back, and sat her in the passenger seat. “Stay here,” I said, hooking back the curtains so I could keep an eye on her.
     A cell phone rested on the sink counter. I took a kerchief out of my shorts, held the phone with it and dialed 911. Behind me, the microwave clock read 3:30 A.M. Turning away from Bliss I reported the murder, then replaced the phone on the counter. I thought of calling Mary but decided against it for the time being.
     “Somebody will be here soon,” I told Bliss. She was shaking. “Can you hold on?”
     She stared out the window into the dark. When I arrived, she had been moaning in the doorway.
     I returned to the living quarters, if they could still be called that, and looked around. One of the dinette benches held Bliss’s mountain dulcimer case, a couple of small cosmetic bags, and an African drum. One of Kofi’s drums, I was sure. On the other bench lay a bright red fiddle.
     The fiddle was in fine fettle — except for its four strings, which somebody had snipped off and twisted round and round the fiddle’s neck, as if strangling it. I looked but didn’t touch. A bow lay on the floor. I squatted to examine it, expecting to find its horsehairs cut through, but the bow looked fine.
     The red fiddle wasn’t the one Stubbs’ had played in class. That had been the $20,000 fiddle and the $10,000 bow Mary wanted safe at all costs. I looked around for his black fiddle case. Using the kerchief, I lifted the handles of storage areas, peeking inside. No fiddle case. No $20,000 fiddle. No $10,000 bow. In fact, there was no fiddle case anywhere, not even for the strangled red fiddle.
     I rubbed my forehead with both hands. Stolen hurdy-gurdy, stolen fiddle and bow, and a murdered man. I was standing at the plate looking as the strikes blew by me.
     And something else was missing.
     The murder weapon.
     Stubbs’ head was smashed in, his skull cracked wide open. Flecks of brain dotted the couch and the window above it. As far as I could see, no weapon in sight.
     I went to sit in the driver seat. “Tell me what happened,” I said.
     “Is he dead?” Bliss breathed.
     “Yes. Where were you?”
     She stared at me without answering.

Complications at the Scene of the Crime
As you can tell from reading this scene, I’m not a techno-type writer (or reader). That is, I don’t concentrate on small technical details or expert technical knowledge for the murders in my mysteries. The murders are somewhat basic. But that doesn’t mean I can’t introduce complications into the scene of the crime.

The scene above contains the following evidence and complications:

(1) Stubbs was murdered with a blunt instrument.
(2) But that instrument is not present at the scene of the crime when Frank arrives.
(3) One of Stubbs’ prized fiddles, a red one, has had its strings cut, and the strings have been wound and twisted around the neck of the fiddle.
(4) Stubbs’ main fiddle and bow, both very expensive, both insured, are missing.
(5) No fiddle cases are present on the scene of the crime.

My purpose in creating these details at the scene of the crime was to complicate matters, specifically to suggest that the person who murdered Stubbs may have been the same person who was stealing stringed instruments — else why would Stubbs’ expensive fiddle and bow be missing?

I used a blunt instrument as the murder weapon in order to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using hammers earlier that day. These include Mary Ployd, Raven Hook, Jeff Glover, Kim Oberfeld, and Frank Dragovic (though I hope the reader does not suspect Frank!)

I used the cut fiddle strings to throw suspicion on those characters who had been using Leatherman tools on Monday. These include Lafayette Wafer and Guy Dufour.

I used the fact that one fiddle was stolen while the other wasn’t stolen (but was mutilated) to throw confusion over what happened and why.

I’lll have more to say about the planting of clues and the casting of suspicion in later chapters.

___________________

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies</em> is available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.

The Index: A Nonfiction Tool

I’m not sure when I first learned what an index was, but I suspect it was when my tenth grade English teacher required each member of the class to write a small research paper. My subject was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Once I realized there were no books on Dr. Mudd in the local library, I felt great dismay, thinking I would have to read many, many books on the Civil War and Lincoln in the hope of finding a mention of Mudd in some of them.

But then, sitting in the library, thumbing through one of the Lincoln books, I noticed something called an Index at the back of the book. In a single glance I inferred what the index provided: an alphabetical list of names, places, and subject matter within the book, with a page number detailing where each mention occurred.

Eureka! I wouldn’t have to read countless books after all, tediously combing through each for a crumb of information. All I really had to do was check the indexes of countless books and read only the chapters (I never read only the pages) in which Dr. Mudd appeared.

Future experiences, especially once I was in college, elevated my appreciation of the index as a nonfiction tool — one that allowed a peruser or a researcher to understand the topics (and the depth of the topics) within each book. Yes, a table of contents should give the reader a general idea of the topics covered, but only an index shows the details of those topics.

sc004dc527Take my best-known nonfiction title, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The table of contents tells the reader that in the section titled “The League Years” I have a chapter titled “Rose Gacioch,” which starts on page 114 and ends on page 120.

But the index references Rose Gacioch in the following manner (with italicized numbers refering to photos):

Gacioch, Rose, 114-20
    All Star Ranger Girls and, 35, 73, 74-75, 115
    retirement, 120
    Rockford Peaches and, 115, 116, 118-19, 135, 138
    South Bend Blue Sox and, 116

Simply by skimming this index information, the reader might infer that Rose Gacioch played for the All Star Ranger Girls, the Rockford Peaches and (perhaps) the South Bend Blue Sox. She did in fact play for all three teams. If somebody researching Rose Gacioch used only the table of contents, they would read pages 114-120 — and would miss the fact that significant information on Gacioch appears in two other chapters, neither of them in “The League Years” and neither of them titled “Rose Gacioch.” Not consulting an index can lead researchers to false assumptions and less information than if they had used the index.

When I teach nonfiction writing, I find that some people in the class don’t know what an index is. They think it’s a table of contents. When shown an index, they appear perplexed, as if they’ve never seen one in their lives. I don’t know how or why this happens: perhaps they have never searched a nonfiction book for information of any kind. This ignorance of indexes extends to search engines such as Google Images: type in “book index” and you’ll see photos of both indexes and tables of content, as if they were one and the same.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, a reader can look at the table of contents and see that I divide the topic into 25 chapters. Dialogue is one of those chapters, and the table of contents shows that Dialogue begins on page 163 and ends on page 172.

But wait. Look at the index. Under “Dialogue” the indexer provided the following information:

Dialogue
    avoiding exposition in, 150-151
    character development and, 163-168
    oblique revelations through, 168-171
    plot advancement through, 171-172
    without conflict, 90-92

This breakdown of the dialogue topics I wrote about gives a reader so much more information than does a chapter title. For one thing, the five subheads tell the reader some of the suggestions I make in regard to writing dialogue. They also indicate that I discuss dialogue outside the chapter entitled “Dialogue.” Specifically, I write about it on pages 150-151 and also on pages 90-92.

An index that works the way it’s supposed to work is somewhat forgettable. That is, the reader uses the index, is pleased with it, and continues with his or her research, giving the index not a second thought . . . until she needs to find something again and can’t remember where it was in the book. But when an index doesn’t work well — when it’s too shallow (not enough subheads), too ludicrously machine-made (words, not concepts) — the reader definitely notices. I have refused to buy books whose indexes look shallow and lack levels of indexing. In this, I’m not alone: many nonfiction readers refuse to buy books that have no indexes or poor indexes.

If you aren’t already a fan of indexes, learn to be one — you’ll soon find that the index is an indispensable tool for nonfiction books.

—————————————

Sharon Sliter Johnson created the index for two of Barbara Gregorich’s books: Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Summary: Telling the Story

In my previous blog, Scene: Centered on Conflict, I gave examples of how even scenes with minor conflicts help move the plot forward and reveal character. Scenes help a story come alive. But just as night balances day, so summary must balance scene. Scenes occur in “real time” in a novel, and so, even though scenes can be intense and absorbing, they can, if there are too many of them, increase the length of a novel. Because scenes take place in “real time,” they occupy more space on the page and in the book.

Enter summary (also called narrative or narrative summary): a condensed description of what happened. Unlike scene, which shows character and actions, summary describes them. Summary is telling rather than showing. Some books on writing define summary as “everything that isn’t dialogue.” Not a bad way to remember it. Scenes almost always contain dialogue, along with the “he said” or “she said” attributions. Just about everything else is summary.

Writers are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. The decision about what should be presented as scene and what as summary is up to each individual novelist, and so much of the decision depends on the story the writer wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. All major conflicts in a novel, however, must be presented in scenes — that’s where the drama is, that’s what readers want, that’s what reveals character.

In my previous post I reprinted a small scene from Sound Proof. I’ll do the same in this post on Summary, but with a different excerpt. The paragraphs below are part of Chapter 11. The italicized parts are summary; the boldfaced parts are scene.SOUNDPROOF-Cover

    After lunch I went off to drum. Not going would offend Kofi, I rationalized. Not going would single me out as strange in a gathering where everybody played music. Admit the truth: I was here because I couldn’t resist the drums.
     I caressed the goatskin drum head, savoring its gritty texture. All of us stroked our drums in one way or another, practicing the patterns. I tried a few of the deep, satisfying booms. Left right left right. The volume filled my chest, the reverberations thrummed through my veins. Fingers flattened, I slapped the skin just past the outer edge, producing a higher pitched sound that wakened my brain.
     Attuned to life, and in this case death, Kofi taught us a pattern played during Ewe funerals. Only part of the pattern, he explained: the whole pattern was very long and complex. The mourning seemed appropriate, the pattern healing. We had been drumming for maybe fifteen minutes when I noticed Bliss. Like a barefoot waif she stood in the doorway of the pole barn, one foot curled over the toes of the other. Kofi signaled Stop on the drum. We all stopped except Lafayette, who did so only when he realized nobody else was playing.
     “Come in.” Kofi motioned to Bliss. “We are playing a song of mourning. You will feel better. Come.”
     Bliss hesitated, then selected a drum and sat near Cody. The drumming resumed.
     Yesterday I’d left the class feeling invigorated. Today it took prime energy to drag my ass out of the pole barn and up toward the main complex. I was tired and bad-tempered. My head hurt, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sniffed under my armpits. I stank. At the pigpen I stopped, leaned over the rail, and rested. I squinted up at the sun. If I tried to nap, I’d probably steam to death in the tent.
    Suzanne was standing outside the kitchen, talking to Aja Freeman. After a couple of minutes, she left Aja and marched my way, practicing her bones, a pair in each hand. One-TWO-three-FOUR, one-TWO-three-FOUR.
     “What’s wrong?” she asked, imitating my posture by leaning on the rail. She held the bones in front of her, clicking them softly.
     “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
     “Easy. You’re hanging with the pig instead of with me.”
     I didn’t reply.
     “What’s with all these cupolas?” she frowned, studying the one on the pig shed.
     “Ventilation.”
     “Over-decoration, if you ask me. I’m glad the barn doesn’t have one.” She did something quick with the bones, a series of fast clicks.
     “What’s that you’re doing?”
     “Triplets.” She smiled in satisfaction. “Not bad, huh?”
     “Yeah, I guess Best Bones West of the Mississippi would approve.”
     The triplets stopped a moment, then started up again. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
     “Did you know that Raven had been married to Shelby Stubbs?”
     She snapped the bones loud enough to register three counties away. “I don’t like it when you talk to me in that tone, Frank.”
     “What tone?”
     “As if I’m holding out on you, as if I’m a suspect you’re trying to extract information from!” She scowled at me.
     “I need that kind of information to do the job I was hired to do.”
     Silence.
     “Did you know?” I persisted.
     “No!” she snapped, “I didn’t know. I don’t know these people like you think I do. Mary’s the only one I know. What do I care who’s married to who — you know how I feel about marriage anyway.”
     Right. Suzanne didn’t believe in marriage, only in living together.
     Except that she still wasn’t living with me.
     “You need a shower.” She walked away, her body stiff.
     “No, I don’t,” I retorted out of pure orneriness.
     She turned and threw a bone at me. I caught it in my right hand. She threw another, I caught it in my left, barely. I thought she was going to throw the last two bones, but she turned and marched toward the farmhouse.
     I looked at the bones in my hands: gray corners and sky-blue streaks winked back at me.

Bones

Bones


In Sound Proof this excerpt comes to twenty-two lines of summary and thirty-seven lines of scene. I started this particular chapter with summary but moved into scene quickly. The scene isn’t large, but it is a scene: it takes place in real time, contains conflict, contains dialogue. So there’s variety in the opening of my eleventh chapter: some summary, some scene.

I’m not saying that I regularly write twenty-two lines of summary followed by thirty-even lines of scene. What I do is alternate scene and summary, pacing the book in a way that feels good to me: that is, it feels to me that this is the way my private eye would experience and report the story. And it feels to me that this is the way a reader would enjoy the telling of the story.

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For more information on scene and summary as well as other aspects of writing fiction, see Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Although aimed at mystery writers, the book offers basic advice and examples on writing fiction in general.

Scene: Centered on Conflict

People who write novels are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. In previous centuries readers enjoyed long paragraphs or even long pages of summary. And much of today’s literary fiction is written mostly in summary (narrative). But best-sellers are usually written in a back-and-forth of scene and summary that emphasizes the importance of scene.

A scene is an event that occurs in real time, with no interruptions such as a change of setting or a change of time. A scene is actually happening on the page rather than being summarized as having happened. Almost all scenes contain dialogue and almost all involve two or more characters.

creative-conflict-01All scenes, without exception, must contain conflict. If the conflict is missing, the scene is a failure — it doesn’t accomplish its double purpose of moving the plot forward and revealing character. If a scene contains no conflict, the writer should rewrite the scene so that there is conflict. And through the conflict, character is further developed and revealed. The conflict need not be huge. Some conflicts are small. But something is at stake in each conflict.

Below are two scenes depicting the same event. The first scene is taken word for word from Sound Proof. The second scene I wrote to illustrate my point about scenes without conflict. In both cases, a murder occurred just a few hours earlier. Because few attendees know about the murder, the festival events are continuing as usual. Private detective Frank Dragovic, along with everybody else, is eating breakfast in the communal dining area. With him is his love interest, Suzanne Quering, and Nola Grayson, the person who runs Midwest Music Madness.

Scene 1
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirit of fun, relaxation, friendship. And good music.”
    I nodded absentmindedly, wondering if I had missed any clue . . . Bliss smelling of cigarette smoke, Edric English fully dressed, the cut strings twisted around the red fiddle. . . .
    “. . . do you agree?” Nola asked.
    Suzanne prodded my thigh.
    “Huh? Agree with what?”
    “That we want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do.”
    “Sure,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    I stared blankly at Nola. “Aja Freeman?” I asked. “One of the cooks?”
    “Yes,” said Nola in exasperation.
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    Build a table. I thought about it for a long minute.
    “Sure,” I said at last. “That’s what I’m here for,” I lied, wondering if Mary had carpentry work planned for me every day. “I’ll talk to Aja this morning.”

blue-enamel-coffee-pot
Scene 2
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirt of fun, relaxation friendship. And good music.”
    “Yes,” I replied.
    “We want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do,” Nola continued.
    “That makes sense,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    “Sure,” I said. “I’ll talk to Aja right after breakfast.”

The second scene, which, I repeat, does not appear in Sound Proof, illustrates what a scene that contains no conflict looks like.

It looks ho-hum. Uninteresting. Dead.

In the first scene, which is the way it appears in Sound Proof, there are several levels of minor conflict occurring. Nola wants Frank to continue in his undercover role as festival carpenter, and as part of that role she asks him to build a table for the kitchen staff. Frank wants to concentrate on the murder (which the sheriff has warned him against trying to solve — but no private eye worth his salt is going to stand back from a case he has a personal or professional interest in). Nola’s want and Frank’s want are in conflict with one another. This is a minor conflict, for sure, but it gives the scene life.

In addition, the scene helps develop and reveal character. What it shows about Frank is that he takes his job seriously: both his job as a professional investigator and his job as an undercover investigator. It shows that he takes murder seriously, too, because although he has been warned off the case, he’s determined to solve it. It shows he’s not a hothead: he thinks about what the best response to Nola’s request is.

The scene also reveals something of Nola’s character. She, too, is professional: a lawyer, and Mary’s festival organizer. She and Mary have thought about what’s best for the festival and the festival participants. As the person in charge, Nola wants Frank to proceed in a certain way, and she requests him to do what she deems best.

And something is also revealed about Suzanne. She prods Frank when he’s not paying attention to the conversation. She could have spoken, said something like, “Frank, Nola is talking to you,” or “Earth to Frank” or something else. But all those would call attention to the fact that Frank is not “there” at the moment. Suzanne does the more subtle thing, prodding him, in a move that Nola probably wouldn’t see. Suzanne knows enough about Frank to know that a prod from her will snap him back to attention. And she cares enough that she wants him to look good.

In the second example, the example without conflict, there is no revelation of character at all.(Except that the scene might make Frank sound like a goody-goody idiot.)

Conflict is the heart of drama, and the heart of scenes. Small conflicts, middle-sized ones, and major ones — each kind can be employed in a scene. Conflict will bring your scenes to life, move your plot forward, and please your readers.

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Sound Proof is full of conflicts of many different kinds, from musical to personal.

Baseball Dilemma Which I Should Have (Maybe) Foreseen

Wishes can come true, but not necessarily when we want them to. Or in the manner we want them to. This has been the case for me and my favorite baseball teams. I say teams rather than team because I’ve lived in a few different places and developed different loyalties.

unknown-2I grew up in northeast Ohio, on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and I grew up playing baseball. The small town I’m from is about equidistant between the American League Cleveland Indians and the National League Pittsburgh Pirates. I liked both teams and listened to their games on radio, but what tipped the scales toward Cleveland was that for several years I was a safety patrol in grade school, and each year the school system took all the safety patrols to Cleveland to see a game.

So I became a fan of the Cleveland Indians. Who always seemed to play the Boston Red Sox whenever we attended a game. Which meant that I got to see Ted Williams at bat. Hitting called to me. Good pitching makes nothing happen; good hitting makes something happen. I was absolutely for making something happen. And thus I became a big fan of the Red Sox.

imagesAfter graduating from high school and college, I worked in Cleveland for several years, attending Indian games when possible. And then my husband and I moved to Boston. There we attended far more games than we had in Cleveland. Far more exciting games, too, featuring Red Sox players such as Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski. My love of the Red Sox deepened, as did Phil’s.

In the mid-70s we moved to Chicago, a city with two baseball teams. We took advantage of this by going to many, many games at both Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field. It didn’t take long for us to develop a love for both the White Sox and the Cubs . . . we could do this because we weren’t born in Chicago, where people who love the Sox hate the Cubs, and vice versa.

Round about 1980 or so, after Phil and I had been following either the Indians, the Red Sox, the Cubs, or the White Sox for almost twenty years, we realized something — the four baseball teams of the three cities we had lived in were precisely the four teams that had gone The. Longest. without a World Series victory. The Cubs had not won since 1908; the White Sox since 1917; the Red Sox since 1918; and the Indians since 1948. Even expansion teams such as the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, and New York Mets had a history that went back to only 1961, so no matter how long it might take one of them to win a World Series . . . they were still ahead of the four teams we supported.

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We considered moving to a different city. San Francisco? Kansas City? Minneapolis-St. Paul? The problem was, we liked Chicago. And Cleveland. And Boston. Besides, we thought, we were being way too pessimistic: surely one of our four teams would win a World Series in the 1980s!

To our joy, and that of millions of Red Sox fans, Boston won the American League pennant in 1986 and went to the World Series. Which it looked as if they would win! But which they lost to the New York Mets.

Okay, then — the 1990s?

Cleveland was in the World Series twice during that decade, 1995 and 1997, losing first to the Atlanta Braves, then to the Florida Marlins.

Around the year 2000, though, I began to lose faith that any of our four teams would ever win a World Series. So be it, I thought. That’s life.

But then came 2004, in which the Boston Red Sox won the World Series!!!!

Followed by 2005, in which the Chicago White Sox won the World Series!!!

Followed by more Red Sox victories, 2007 and 2013!

So. Half of our four teams did, in fact, win a World Series and removed themselves from the list of Series-drought teams.

unknownOnly the Chicago Cubs (1908) and the Cleveland Indians (1948) remained on that list.

But wait!

We never thought, we never anticipated, we never considered that . . . the two teams would face each other in a World Series.

Aarrggghhhhh!

What’s a fan to do?

A fan supports her team. Which is why I’ll be shouting Go, Teams!

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Supporting four baseball teams wasn’t enough for Barbara Gregorich, so she invented the Chicago Eagles, a fictitious team, for her novel She’s on First.

Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book

grid-basic

My basic grid

Twice in my life I’ve accepted a request to serve as judge for an annual mystery award. The first time was during the 1980s, when I served as one of the five judges to determine the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery Novel. The Edgar is given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The second time was this year (2016), when I served as one of three judges to determine the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA).

For the Edgar Award I read approximately 200 submitted novels. There were more than 200 submitted, but some weren’t eligible (mainly because they weren’t mystery novels). The reading and evaluating of those novels was difficult, especially because the novels didn’t arrive at my doorstep at an even rate of, say, 20 a month. Instead, the bulk of them arrived after September — and the voting took place at the end of December. During some days I read one novel all morning long, finished in mid-afternoon, and started another novel in the evening.

For the Shamus Award I read about 20 novels. Here, too, some weren’t eligible (because they weren’t private eye novels). Instead of having a twelve-month reading period, as with the Edgar, I had about a four-month reading period, with voting due at the end of May, 2016. Still, even though in both cases I read each eligible novel from beginning to end, it was far easier to read 20 novels in four months than it was to read 200 novels in twelve months.

The real question in judging books for a contest, however, isn’t the number of books submitted — it’s how to evaluate them while reading, how to remember them, and, ultimately, how to rank them at the end of all the reading.

Conceivably a person reading 20 books in four months could remember what she thought of each and list her top five choices without having taken notes of any kind. She could, for example, stack the books in piles as she read them, the best going in the #1 pile, the good-but-not-best going in the #2 pile, and the others going in the #3 pile. Then, when the time came to vote, she could quickly skim the books in the #1 pile to refresh her memory, then rank them in the order she thought best.

I don’t think anybody could do this with 200 books, though.

And because my first book-judging experience was with the 200 books, I developed a chart and filled it out for each book. I kept the filled-out charts (and not the novels themselves) in three different stacks.

Somewhere along the route of computer upgrades, system upgrades, and word-processing upgrades, I lost the chart I developed for the Edgar judging. But when asked to read and judge books for the Shamus, I had almost no difficulty reconstructing it.

My approach was to read each book from beginning to end, thinking about it as I read. After I finished, I would fill in the chart by marking an X within each box. I also used the space within each box to more accurately record my impressions. To the left end of Average brought that aspect of a book close to Very Good. To the right end brought that aspect close to Poor.

grid-bad

Not a contender

Above is an example of how I filled out the chart for one of the books. I have left off the title, author, etc., because I don’t want to identify the book, I simply want to use it as an illustration. It was not a contender, as you can infer from my ratings and comments.

Many people think that a book that deserves an award will be so good, so clearly dominant, that everybody will agree and vote it #1. This is certainly possible: there are years in which all the judges vote for the same book as #1. But it’s also possible, and in fact likely, that judges will vote for different books as #1.

The book with the highest number of points wins the vote and therefore the award. That is to say, each first-choice book receives 5 points; each second choice 4 points; and so on down to each fifth choice, which receives 1 point. It’s possible that a novel all five judges rank as #2 ends up being the winner. Therefore, it’s not a matter of simply voting for the novel one considers best, and not caring about the other four. A judge must think carefully about each of his final five choices, and think hard about how he would rank them.

grid-1

The book I ranked first

I found that the best way for me to rank the books in order was by evaluating them as I read them, recording my judgements, and then examining both the novels and their charts before voting. Above is my chart evaluation of the novel that I ranked first. It’s also the novel that received the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.

grid-2

The book I ranked second

Above is my evaluation of the novel I ranked second. As you can see by my notes, I thought the novel I ranked second was a good book, but I was critical of some weaknesses in the plot. I might read another book by this author, I might not. But I will read another book by the winner, because her characters and their situations were compelling. And her writing is excellent. She was, by the way, in my opinion the only one out of 20-some authors who wrote a mystery filled with tension. In fiction, tension is essential to a good story. If there’s no tension about what’s going to happen . . . who cares?

Now that the Shamus Award judging is done and the winners in each category were announced at the 2016 Bouchercon, I can put my master grid away. Until, perhaps, I need to use it again.

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Barbara Gregorich does not discuss award judging in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. But she does talk about how to develop characters, plot, and tension, and the importance of the solution.

Use What You Need, Invent the Rest

Cover-with-Template

It wasn’t until after I had published my first two novels that I realized: (1) People think my hero is me; (2) People think that most of the events in my novels actually happened to me.

For example, because Frank Dragovic, the protagonist of Dirty Proof, states that he doesn’t like pizza for breakfast, all kinds of people have come up to me and said something akin to: “What’s wrong with you? Pizza for breakfast is delicious!”

There’s nothing wrong with me. I happen to love pizza for breakfast. It’s a character in my book who doesn’t like it. That character is somebody I created. I gave him some of my likes and dislikes, some of other people’s likes and dislikes. In fact, to make myself work harder to develop his character, I made sure he wasn’t identical to me. Likewise for other characters, major and minor: I feel free to have them live events that happened to me, and I feel even more free to invent for them their own events.

In the poem below, which I wrote in 2010-11, some of the events happened to me, and some didn’t. I’ll explain after the poem itself.

 
Crossing the Skyway: 1968

The Greyhound drones, Madison to Cleveland,
ferrying the poor, a few of them students destined
to demonstrate against the state-spawned war, fewer

thinking about French students on strike, fewest conjugating
French verbs for practice. Laboring toward the Skyway,
clever construct of Mayor Daley to circumvent laws

prohibiting toll bridges on land, the bus lurches
up the long, high arc of roadway. Belching black smoke
it slows, jolts, stops. In the back a wraith-like stranger

in worn denims and cowboy boots looks up from the marks
he’s been carving into his saddlebag and summarizes:
This animal done staggered.

The hindered and jostled board a replacement and continue
to their destination, as does the state continue to wage war,
not just that war, but more wars, repeats of wars, wars

that were, wars that are, wars to come. L’etat, c’est maw.
Despite its Vietnam defeat, despite race rebellions,
despite assassinations, the state survives, cruising

its own skyway, declaring the good life for all.
But the century turns and the bus begins to lurch —
capacity overloaded with cluster bombs, war planes,

battleships; engine clogged with devalued currency,
costly bailouts, bankruptcies; tires blown by unemployment
and homelessness. The skyway, too, is crumbling, potholes

more than roadway, and as the black smoke of human misery
spews out the bus sides, a specter awakens, pulls a dusty
Marx from his saddlebag and repeats: This animal done staggered.

How much of this poem actually happened? My bus ride from Madison to Cleveland happened. My fellow riders were students and working class. Some were indeed going to a place where they could take a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland to join friends and together we would take one of the antiwar-rally busses to DC.

The Greyhound did indeed break down on the Chicago Skyway, exactly like my poem describes it. In the back of the bus was a man dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans and cowboy books. He had with him some sort of leather satchel that looked like a saddlebag, though I’m not certain it was. He did indeed utter, This animal done staggered.

You can see why such an event would imprint itself on my mind. It stayed with me, and eventually it came out as a poem.

arton2400How much of this poem didn’t happen? Well, the bus I was riding broke down in 1965, but in the poem I changed the date to 1968. Why? Because by 1968 the war had intensified, with President Johnson sending more and more American troops to try to quell the Vietnamese liberation struggle. By 1968 more and more students and others were protesting the war. In May of 1968 French students rose up in rebellion against capitalism; French workers staged general strikes. In the poem I wanted to tie the US protests against the war to world-wide events: hence the 1968 date

The cowboy-type character in the back of the bus was not carving marks into his saddlebags (at least not that I was aware). But I wanted an allusion to Karl Marx and to his famous statement that “a spectre is haunting Europe” (hence I made the stranger wraith-like). For Marx, that specter was communism. It was the specter of an economic system yet to be born.

When the event of crossing the skyway on a doomed bus happened to me, it was finite: it occurred, a replacement bus was sent, and the event was over with. But in the poem I move from the skyway event through the next forty years, ending in the awakening of the forgotten, dormant, wraith-like stranger who now, instead of making marks, pulls Marx out of his saddlebags, offering to the world once again the analysis that capitalism has not only outlived its usefulness, but has dragged us all downward, downward into unemployment, poverty, and war.

In poetry and in fiction, writers use what they need (from what really happened) and invent the rest — in order to tell the particular story they want to tell.

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“Crossing the Skyway” is the title poem in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.