Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 5

After publishing my first volume of poetry, I turned to the exacting task of constructing Volume 2 of Research Notes for Women at Play. Just as with Volume 1, I first created a template and then typed my book into that template. (For all my other books, I wrote the book first and then pasted the manuscript into a blank template.)

There was so much formatting involved with all three volumes of Research Notes that I just felt more comfortable doing everything in the template itself, thus decreasing the chance that I would create some inadvertent error if I were to transfer the manuscript to the template.

GregorichRNNotesIIKindleCoverI published Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume 2, in July of 2013. It was my second self-published book of that year, and my seventh self-published book since early 2010.

Not long after publishing Volume 2, I was hit with a desire to write a book on how to write a mystery novel. I’ve been reading mysteries since I was eleven years old, and mysteries account for perhaps 50% of all the books I read. As an avid reader, I find that over the years I’ve developed annoyances at certain things I encounter in some mystery novels — and if I encounter them, I do not continue to read that author’s books.

I’ve published two mystery novels, and while writing my second one, Sound Proof, I created charts and graphs. These allowed me to track the appearance of minor characters, track their motives, and always be aware of where all the characters were within the setting. I drew a diagram of the farm and buildings where the action took place. I made certain that the minor-character villain was present often enough to register on the reader’s consciousness. I tracked all the elements important to developing plot, character, tension, and resolution.

One day (who knows why) I was struck by a desire to explain some of the things a mystery writer should consider in order to write a mystery that doesn’t cheat, doesn’t sound improbable, and doesn’t annoy the reader. So, pulling out all my saved materials for Sound Proof, I wrote a 25-chapter outline for my to-be nonfiction book and then, week by week, wrote the manuscript. And, because most of the books I’ve written are not mysteries, the guide contains a lot of information on writing in general. (Reviews have pointed this out.)

Let me digress a moment to say that one of the truly wonderful things about self-publishing (and there are many) is that it allows writers to publish books that, because they have a small market, are unlikely to be picked up by a traditional publisher. All three volumes of Research Notes serve as an example. Th existence of high-quality self-publishing also allows writers to self-publish books that are unlikely to sell to a traditional publisher because the author isn’t a big enough name. My how-to serves as an example. I felt that traditional publishers might like my manuscript, but wouldn’t take a chance on publishing it. I love that I was able to publish it myself.

COVER-WITH-TEMPLATE

And now back to the process of self-publishing my how-to. With this how-to, which would become my eight self-published book, I ran into a word-processing roadblock. Fitting all the charts and graphs into my 6”x9” template proved impossible: there was something about Apple’s Pages program that didn’t allow a long chart (three pages long, say) to flow from one page to another. Instead, I had to chop the chart into pieces that would fit on each page. And even then, I couldn’t make it work. So, as before, I asked friend Robin Koontz if I could hire her to format the document. Robin agreed, producing a publication-ready template — but even she thought it was difficult to do.

Of all the titles I’ve come up with for my self-published books, this one is my favorite: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title promises information, lots of examples, and humor. The book, I think, delivers those things.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, was published in October of 2014. It soon became my best-selling self-published book. To this day, Guide battles with Jack and Larry for the number one position in my monthly sales.

After I published Guide in 2014, I dove into the work of publishing the final volume of Research Notes to Women at Play. I self-published the first volume in 2010, and the third in October of 2015.

BookCoverNotesCoverIII-FINALIf you’ve been reading these posts on my self-publishing adventures, you may remember that I intended to donate my thousands of pages of research notes to the Baseball Hall of Fame . . . but then I got the brilliant idea of self-publishing a portion of the notes.

So, after the third volume was finally published, I began to organize my notes, so that I could deliver them to the BHOF in a neat order. I began in November, 2015, and I finished in July, 2016. The project was a big one. I delivered the notes in August, 2016. And then I spent the rest of the year catching up on what I had neglected while organizing the notes. So I did no self-publishing in 2016.

In fact, I thought it was unlikely that I’d self-publish anything for two or three years. But such was not the case.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies vies with Jack and Larry for best-selling of Barbara Gregorich’s self-published books.

Adventures in Self-Publishing, Part 3

After successfully publishing two books in 2010, I went for a third in 2011. My first self-published book was a reprint, my second was an original. Sound Proof, my third, was also an original. It’s a mystery novel, the sequel to my 1988 mystery, Dirty Proof. This is a novel that I could have submitted to publishers for traditional publication, but I really wanted to see how an original mystery would fare as a self-published book. So I published it myself.

This was an easy, enjoyable process. I simply took the 6″x9” template I had created for She’s on First, duplicated it, titled the template Sound Proof, and deleted the interior — while keeping the formatting. I got rid of the New Peninum font and replaced it with Palatino, an elegant, readable typeface. In less than a day I was able to insert my manuscript pages into the existing template, choose a font for the chapter numbers, write the copyright information, write the dedication, and write an About the Author page.

Had I gone ahead and published, I could have said that I formatted and self-published a book in a 24-hour period. But I didn’t go ahead and self-publish. What I did was go hunting for widows and orphans, and that added four or five additional days to my schedule. And a lot of woe.

As one who has read books since the age of five, as one who has observed what the pages of typographically beautiful books like like, and as one who is a former typesetter, I was determined to avoid pages that started with “widows” — a word or a few words which end a paragraph but start at the top of a new page. A widow is separated from the rest of its paragraph and kind of hangs at the top of a new page, all alone. In typesetting, widows are considered undesirable elements: sentences or paragraphs are rewritten so that the widow disappears. If the writing is made shorter, the widow ends up on the same page as the beginning of the paragraph. If the writing is made longer, at least one additional line of type moves to the top of the next page, so that there are two lines of type at the top. No widows.

SOUNDPROOF-CoverAn orphan, on the other hand, is the first line of a paragraph that is the last line on a page. That is, the first line of the paragraph starts at the very bottom of a page, and then the rest of the paragraph continues on the next page. Orphans are also considered undesirable in typesetting. No orphans.

In the process of eliminating widows and orphans, I found myself rewriting two or three times per chapter (there are 28 chapters in Sound Proof), just to change the page layout. What I was rewriting were lines in the final, thrice-proofread, formatted manuscript. My brain was in an eliminate-widows frame of mind — not in a look-for-typos frame of mind. And definitely not in a send-this-out-for-more-proofreading frame of mind. As far as I was concerned, the typos had all been eliminated. But in rewriting on the spot, I ended up making typos that I didn’t catch. Or, worse, I typed proper names that were correct for the characters in Sound Proof, but Spellcheck changed the spelling.

As a result, readers told me that Sound Proof contained noticeable typos: about fifteen of them. That is a lot of typos. Several months after the novel came out, I corrected each typo and resubmitted the manuscript to CreateSpace, and within a day my new, corrected manuscript was published.

No other book that I’ve self-published has contained so many typos. Most of my books have contained no typos: before I publish, I make certain the manuscript is read, re-read, read by outsiders, and spellchecked several times. Because of my experience with Sound Proof, I have, ever since, disregarded widows and orphans — because I associate them with a blunder on my part. If they occur, I let them occur. I find this preferable to trying to rewrite paragraphs and creating inadvertent errors that show up in print. And also preferable to sending out a thrice-proofread manuscript for a fourth proofreading.

After I self-published Sound Proof, I realized that it would be very easy (as well as very wise) of me to republish its predecessor, Dirty Proof. As with She’s on First, my agent made sure that the rights had reverted to me.

DIRTYPROOF-FINALCOVER-2So once again I duplicated my 6″x9” template, deleted the contents, and pasted in new content. Having made up my mind to ignore widows and orphans, I self-published Dirty Proof in less than 48 hours. The template was the same one I used for Sound Proof, as was the typeface and leading, and as were the margins and chapter headings. Robin Koontz designed both covers, and she made certain that the covers indicated the books were part of a set. A set which would become a series after I wrote a third Proof novel.

I’m happy that I self-published Dirty Proof, both because it was so easy to do, and also because many mystery readers insist on reading a series in sequence — so I wanted the first book available along with the second. As to my experiment to see how well a self-published mystery did, I was happy with Sound Proof’s first year of sales, and for two years it was the best-selling of my self-published books.

In 2010 I self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. In 2011 I also self-published two books, one a reprint and one an original. That exhausted my supply of books to reprint: from here on, I thought, anything I self-published would be an original.
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Dirty Proof and Sound Proof are available as softcover books and as ebooks.

Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.

Agony.

I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)

But.

What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.

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Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.

Outline: The Black Camel

I’ve been teaching a lot of writing classes lately, and when I teach fiction I recommend to students that they choose a novel they like and outline it, in order to determine its bare-bones construction. Then I confess to them that I have never done so.

Today I’m remedying that situation by posting my outline of Earl Derr Biggers’ fourth Charlie Chan novel, The Black Camel. The outline below lists only the pertinent plot points — the statements and incidents which lead Charlie and the reader forward, toward the solution of the mystery. Such an outline reveals the novel’s skeleton only — it in no way shows the wit, the humor, the character differences, the setting, the dialogue, the subplots, or any other of the muscle, sinew, and tone which help create a delightful reading experience.

In my next blog I’ll analyze the novel. Until then, you can use your own judgement to figure out why certain things are bold-faced or italicized.

Spoiler Alert: If you read the outline, you will know who committed the crime and how and why.

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Shelah Fane — Hollywood actress
Alan Jaynes — man who has recently proposed to Shelah
Jimmy Bradshaw — young reporter working for the Hawaii Tourist Bureau
Julie O’Neill — secretary to Shelah Fane
Diana Dixon — Hollywood actress
Huntley Van Horn — Hollywood actor, Shelah’s leading man
Anna Rodderick — Shelah’s maid/dresser
Tarneverro the Great — fortune-teller to Hollywood stars
Val Martino — director of the Shelah’s current film
Charlie Chan — Inspector in the Honolulu Police Department
Jessop — Shelah Fane’s butler
Robert Fyfe — actor, ex-husband of Shelah Fane
Rita Ballou — former actress
Wilkie Ballou — wealthy Hawaiin who married Rita
Wu Kno-ching — cook at Shelah Fane’s house
Kashimo — a member of the police force who reports to Chan
Smith — a beach bum, former artist in landscapes
Chief of Police — Chan’s superior
Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster — retired Australians on vacation in Hawaii

Chapter 1  
• Shelah Fane, Alan Jaynes, Huntley Van Horn, Val Martino, Diana Dixon, and Anna Roderick arrive in Honolulu, coming from Tahiti.
• Waiting for them are Jimmy Bradshaw, Tarneverro the Great, and Julie O’Neill.
• Tarneverro meets Charlie Chan, who tells him he should use his psychic powers to aid the Los Angeles police with unsolved murders such as that of Denny Mayo, which occurred three years earlier.
• Shelah meets with Tarneverro to have her fortune read: she wants to know if she should accept Jaynes’ proposal of marriage.

unknownChapter 2
• Back in the house she has rented, Shelah Fane is distressed at the results of her session with Tarneverro.
• A box of orchids arrives from Robert Fyfe, her ex-husband. He’s performing on stage in Honolulu.
• Guests start arriving for a dinner party — Jimmy Bradshaw, Rita and Wilkie Ballou and her husband, Alan Jaynes.
• Shelah tells Alan that she cannot marry him. This infuriates Jaynes, who believes she is refusing his offer of marriage because Tarneverro advised her to do so.
• Jaynes leaves the house and walks back to the Grand Hotel, where he confronts Tarneverro
• Val Martino, also staying at the hotel, restrains Jaynes. With Martino is Huntley Van Horn.
• As the four men are in the lobby, Charlie Chan arrives
• Van Horn announces that he’s leaving in order to walk to Shelah’s for dinner. Martino and Jaynes also leave.
• Tarneverro tells Chan that he, too, is dining at Shelah’s later that evening, and that when the dinner is over, he may have a very important message for Chan. A message that requires Chan to arrest a murderer.

Chapter 3
• Arriving at Shelah’s house Van Horn strolls out onto the lawn toward the pavilion.
• Wu Kno-ching enters the room, demanding to know when dinner should be served.
• Jessop goes down to the beach to round up the guests. They all wonder where Shelah is.
• Julie and Jimmy volunteer to fetch Shelah, who must be in the pavilion. Together they enter — and find Shelah dead, her body on the floor.

Chapter 4
• Chan is called to investigate.
• On his way out of the hotel, he encounters Tarneverro and tells him that Shelah Fane has been murdered.
• The fortune teller is stunned. Chan invites him to ride with him to the investigation. Tarneverro laments that Shelah’s blood is on his head.
• Chan asks him to explain, and Tarneverro tells him that at Shelah’s fortune-telling yesterday, she confessed to him that she was hiding in another room when, three years ago, Denny Mayo was murdered.
Shelah told him that the murderer was at this moment in Honolulu. But she did not tell him the name of the murderer.
Tarneverro says he encouraged Shelah to write the name of the guilty person on a piece of paper and give it to him that evening, so that he could give it to Chan and so that justice could be done.
• Chan theorizes that the person who killed Shelah was the same person who murdered Mayo — but Chan can’t figure out how this person would have known that Shelah was about to reveal his name.
• Chan examines the body. He finds that there was a struggle, and that Shelah’s wristwatch was smashed, its crystal broken, and the hands stopped at 8:02.
• Tarneverro firmly reminds Charlie that at 8:02 he, Jaynes, Martino, and Van Horn were all standing together, with Chan, in the lounge of the Grand Hotel.
• A bouquet of flowers that had been pinned to Shelah’s dress was torn off and trampled under foot. But the pin with which the flowers were fastened is missing. “Strangely missing,” Chan observes.
• Chan also finds a fresh nick on the corner of a glass table inside the pavilion.
• Tarneverro looks in Shelah’s gold mesh bag, saying that maybe the note she promised to write to him was there. But it isn’t.
• When Chan and Tarneverro enter the house, Jessop hands Tarneverro an envelope from Shelah.
• Chan intercepts the envelope, stating that the police are now in charge.
• The others are called into the room. Charlie holds up the envelope — and then the lights go out.
• The thud of a body hitting the floor is heard. When the lights are turned back on, Charlie is lifting himself from the floor, rubbing his right cheek, which is bloody. All but a small fragment of the letter is gone.

Chapter 5
• Chan looks at the men standing around to see if any are wearing rings: he figures it was a ring that cut his cheek. None are wearing rings.
• Chan does not search anybody: he figures the person who swiped the letter immediately tucked it into a drawer, chair, or recess of some kind.
• During questioning, Chan ascertains that Wilkie and Rita have been married for three years, and that both lived in Hollywood three years ago.
• Julie O’Neill informs Chan that the orchids Shelah was wearing came from Robert Fyfe.
• Huntley Van Horn says that he arrived at Shelah’s around 8:15.
• Val Martino says he did not live in Hollywood three years ago, only two years ago.
• Alan Jaynes asks if Chan has fixed the time of death, and the detective acknowledges that it was 8:02. Jaynes says that he has never been to Hollywood.
• Diana Dixon says she left the house at 8:00 and walked down to the beach. She noticed a man leaving the pavilion. He wore a long overcoat, dress clothes, and his white shirt was stained with something red.

the-black-camel-movie-poster-1931-1010267452Chapter 6
• Jessop says he lived in Hollywood three years earlier.
Jessop states that at 8:02 he was in the kitchen with Wu and with Anna.
• He informs Chan that earlier in the day he saw Shelah in the library, weeping over a photograph of a man. The photo was mounted on a green mat.
Chan questions Wu in Cantonese as Jimmy, Julie, and Tarneverro look on.
• When the interview is finished, Jimmy asks Chan what was said, but Chan refuses to reveal it.
• Anna Rodderick has been Shelah’s maid for 18 months, from the day Anna first arrived in Hollywood.
• Anna describes the gold and diamond pin that Shelah used to fasten her orchids.
• Chan takes Anna into the pavilion and asks her to check to make certain that all of Shelah’s jewelry is still there.
• While Anna is searching, Kashimo discovers a set of footprints outside the pavilion window.
Anna tells Chan that the pin that fastened the orchids is missing — as is a large emerald ring that Shelah wore on her right hand.

Chapter 7
• Chan lists all those who were in Hollywood three years earlier, when Denny Mayo was murdered: Wilkie Ballou, Rita Ballou, Huntley Van Horn, and Jessop.
• Tarneverro informs Chan that Diana Dixon was also there at the time.
• So was Julie O’Neill.
• With Chan’s permission, Tarneverro examines the wristwatch, turning its stem: the minute hand instantly moves.
Tarneverro argues that this means the murderer adjusted the watch time to a certain setting — 8:02 — then forgot to re-adjust the stem.
Chan then points out that everyone’s alibi is gone — including Tarneverro’s. The fortune teller hints that he might have another alibi.
• Charlie finds the letter that was snatched from his hand: it was hidden under a rug. The letter does not name the murderer. Instead, in it Shelah begs Tarneverro to forget that their conversation ever took place.
• Kashimo returns from his search of the upstairs and produces a handful of torn bits of paper and heavy green cardboard: he found them buried in a potted plant.
• Chan spreads the pieces out on a table and sits down to put them together. In the room are Chan, Tarneverro, Van Horn, Martino, Jaynes, and Wilkie and Rita Ballou.
Chan informs them that everyone’s alibi for the 8:02 time has vanished.
• Kashimo thrusts open a French window and the bits of photograph blow everywhere.
• The guests start picking up the scattered pieces, as does Chan. When the collection is completed, Chan realizes he has less than half the amount he started with and thus won’t be able to reconstruct the photo. 
• The doorbell rings. The new guest introduces himself as Robert Fyfe, Shelah’s ex-husband. He is wearing an overcoat, and across his chest is a bright red splash: it is part of his costume.

Chapter 8
• Fyfe says he was not in Hollywood three years ago.
• When Chan asks whether Fyfe saw Shelah this evening, Fyfe replies that he did not.
• The guests leave for the dining room, where coffee is served. Fyfe and Chan remain and
Fyfe admits that he did see Shelah that evening. She met him in front of the pavilion and the two of them went inside and talked.
Fyfe left at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20. The stage manager was waiting for him at the door.
• A Honolulu police officer arrives: in his grip is a beach bum who claims his name is Smith. Chan takes Smith into the living room, where Fyfe waits.
The footprints under the window match Smith’s exactly. Chan demands an explanation. Smith insists that he never entered the pavilion, simply listened underneath the window.
• Smith identifies Fyfe as the man he saw inside the pavilion.
• Just as Smith is about to tell Chan what he heard Shelah tell Fyfe, Fyfe himself leaps up and confesses that he killed Shelah.
• Chan asks why. Fyfe replies that he wanted Shelah to return to him, but she wouldn’t.
• Chan refuses to accept the confession. Fyfe has an unshakeable alibi, having left the pavilion at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20.
Then Chan announces that Shelah Fane was alive and well at 8:12.

Chapter 9 
• Tarneverro wants to know how Chan knew that Shelah was alive at 8:12. Chan says that Wu told him this, when the two were speaking in Cantonese.
Wu stated that at 8:12 he went to the pavilion to speak to Shelah Fane: she was there, alive and well.
• Chan returns to interrogating Smith, who now claims that all he heard between Shelah and Fyfe was Fyfe’s pleas for her to return. Smith says Fyfe left and Shelah remained in the room, alive.
Chan knows that Fyfe is hiding something: something that came out in the conversation with Shelah, that Smith overheard, and that Fyfe wants repressed.
• Chan tells the guests that because Shelah was alive at 8:12 and dead by 8:30, he wants to know what each guest was doing during those crucial eighteen minutes.
• Four people in particular, who had alibis before, now need to explain where they were: Tarneverro, Val Martino, Alan Jaynes, and Huntley Van Horn.
• Tarneverro says that he spent the time talking with an old couple who are friends of his from Australia.
• Jaynes says that he has no alibi, he was wandering the beach.
• Van Horn says that after he arrived at the house, he went down to the beach, where he spoke to Rita Ballou.
• Val Martino says he was sitting outside the hotel, thinking.
• Tarneverro calls Chan’s attention to a bleeding cut on the director’s brow and tells Charlie that Martino just placed a bloody handkerchief in his pocket.
• Chan examines the handkerchief with a magnifying glass and finds a few splinters of glass in it: splinters which may have come from the glass top in the pavilion.
• Martino denies that it’s his handkerchief. He has no idea how it ended up in his pocket.
• Martino points out to Chan that there’s a laundry mark on the silk handkerchief: the letter B.

Chapter 10
• Martino says that as the guests were leaving the dining room, he felt a little tug at his pocket. But he has no idea who was around him at the time . . . except, he says, Tarneverro was nearby.
• The director and the fortune teller get into a heated argument.
• Chan stops the argument by announcing to all the guests that they are free to go home.
• Chan searches the bedrooms, then questions Anna again.
• Producing an emerald ring from his pocket, he asks her if it’s the one that was missing from Shelah Fane’s hand. She affirms that it is.
• Chan then turns to Julie and asks her what the ring was doing in the drawer of her dressing-table.
• Julie says that Shelah was always hard up for money and that the actress asked Julie to sell the ring for her.
• According to Julie, Shelah gave her the ring at 8:00 a.m.
• Chan looks at the ring through his magnifying glass. It’s inscribed: “Shelah from Denny.”
• Julie bursts into tears.
• When Chan gives Jimmy a ride back to the newspaper office, Jimmy asks if he can have his handkerchief back: it was his silk handkerchief, with B for Bradshaw, that somebody lifted and palmed off onto Martino.
• Chan refuses to return the handkerchief.

Chapter 11
• At the police station Charlie reports to the Chief all that has transpired.
• The Chief tells Chan that they fingerprinted Smith and let him go.
• They discuss Tarneverro and how he might seem a bit too eager to assist Charlie.
• Outside the police station, Chan sees Smith.
• Chan follows him. Smith goes to the Waioli Hotel, looks into the lobby, hesitates, then leaves. Chan knows that the Waioli Hotel is where Robert Fyfe resides.

Chapter 12
• The next morning Smith awakens on the beach. He visits Robert Fyfe, who says he has been waiting for Smith to arrive and blackmail him.
• Fyfe gives the beach bum a $50 advance on $250.
• Smith then goes to the seedy Nippon Hotel and rents the room he always rents when he has a bit of money.

Chapter 13
• After Chan arises he drives to the Waioli Hotel, where he is informed that Mr. Fyfe left earlier, with a man. By the description, Charlie ascertains that the man was Smith.
• At the theater Chan finds Fyfe rehearsing. He questions the stage manager, who verifies Fyfe’s time alibi for the previous evening.
• Chan speaks to Fyfe privately, imploring him to speak the truth about what Shelah said to him. Fyfe claims he forgot what she said to him.
Chan argues that Fyfe is hampering the police investigation, but Fyfe won’t budge.
• At the Honolulu library, Charlie asks for the Los Angeles newspapers of three years ago. The librarian tells him that the particular volume he wants is in use at the moment.
Chan looks to see who is reading the volume. It is Huntley Van Horn.

unknown-5Chapter 14
• At the Grand Hotel Charlie speaks to Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster of Australia: the old couple who provide Tarneverro’s alibi for the now-established time of murder.
• As Chan begins to speak to the couple, Tarneverro himself approaches.
• Chan asks specifically about the time Tarneverro departed, and MacMaster says it was 8:32 when the fortune teller left them.
• Ten years ago, Tarneverro was a sheepman on the MacMaster ranch.
• As Mrs. MacMaster starts to say something, Tarneverro interrupts her to continue his story.
Tarneverro suggests that Chan consider Wilkie Ballou as a suspect.
• “There is also Martino,” Chan replies. Tarneverro agrees.
• As Chan and Tarneverro walk through the hotel, the head bellman speaks to Tarneverro in Cantonese. Tarneverro asks what the bellman said, and Chan replies that the bellman made a respectful inquiry about Tarneverro’s health.
• At Shelah’s house Chan strolls to the pavilion and, outside the window, where Smith had been standing, he finds a small cigar — of the type that Alan Jaynes smokes.

Chapter 15
• On the inside of the pavilion windowsill are the prints of a man’s fingers and thumb.
• Chan asks the police department’s fingerprint expert to photograph the prints.
• Chan goes to the Grand Hotel to talk to Alan Jaynes about the cigar. While waiting for Jaynes, Chan improvises a way to capture his fingerprints without Jaynes’ knowledge.
• Jaynes denies that he was near the pavilion.
• According to the fingerprint expert, Jaynes’ fingerprints do not match those on the windowsill.
The prints on the sill match those of Smith, the beach bum.

Chapter 16
• Chan asks the Chief to have Smith found and brought into the station.
Jessop swears that Shelah was wearing the emerald ring at 7 p.m. the previous evening.
• Chan asks Julie why she lied to him about the ring. She denies that she lied.
She informs Chan that there’s an old grudge between her and Jessop and that he lied.
• Chan asks why Van Horn was in the library reading the Los Angeles papers from three years ago, and the actor hands Charlie an unsigned typewritten note.
The note tells Van Horn to go to the library and remove from the bound volumes any references that damage him (Van Horn).
• Van Horn says that whoever did this, did so to throw suspicion on him. Chan suggests that Van Horn could have written the letter himself.
• Back at the library Chan finds the volume of Los Angeles newspapers on the very table where he had seen Van Horn examining it. When Chan opens the volume, he is astonished to see that every picture of Denny Mayo has been cut from the newspaper.

Chapter 17
• The photos are gone, but the articles remain, so Chan reads them. He learns that Mayo came to Hollywood directly from the English stage.
• His servant had the night off and went out: when he returned at midnight, Mayo was dead, shot at close range with his own revolver.
• Little was known of Mayo’s past, though it was rumored he had a wife back in England. Yet no family member came forward.
• Mayo had been working in a picture with actress Rita Montaine — now Rita Ballou.
• A witness testified that he had heard a quarrel between Wilkie Ballou and Denny.
• But on the night of the murder Wilkie had an alibi: he was with Rita from 6:00 until midnight.
Van Horn swears that he left the volume on the table around 9:30 in the morning, and it was in perfect condition at the time.
• The Chief says he wants to interview the MacMasters himself, to determine if they are lying.
• Kashimo returns to the station, dejected: he hasn’t found Smith.
Rita Ballou says that Shelah Fane was wearing the emerald ring the previous evening. Rita remembers Shelah wearing the same ring in Hollywood.

Chapter 18
• Chan once again confronts Julie. He drags out of her the following information:
• (1) Shelah Fane did give her the ring in the morning and asked her to sell it.
• (2) After she returned from her late-morning interview with Tarneverro, Shelah took the ring back.
• (3) When Jimmy and Julie found Shelah dead, Julie knelt down and removed the ring from Shelah’s hand.
• Chan says he knows that Shelah was in Denny’s house the night he was murdered and, consequently, she knew the name of the killer.
• Julie says that the night of Denny’s murder, Shelah came home in a state of hysteria and wasn’t herself for weeks.
• After she returned from seeing Tarneverro, Shelah asked for the ring back because it had Denny’s name in it and she didn’t want any mention of that name now. “He’ll come back to disgrace me yet,” Shelah said of Denny Mayo.
• Julie says she took the ring in order to keep Denny’s name from disgracing Shelah, and Julie ripped the photo of Denny to shreds and buried the pieces in a potted plant for the same reason.
• When Chan asks her if she gathered up many of the photo pieces that were scattered all over the living room and kept them to herself, Julie says that was not her. She reminds Charlie that she wasn’t in the room when that happened.
• Chan puzzles over who doesn’t want him to see a photo of Denny Mayo — and why.
The bellman who had spoken to Tarneverro in Cantonese tells Chan that Tarneverro understands Cantonese.
• Chan thinks about this and concludes that Tarneverro understood what Wu said about seeing Shelah alive at 8:12, and so Tarneverro made a point of “discovering” that the murderer had deliberately set the broken wristwatch to 8:02.
• Chan concludes that Tarneverro is not as true a “helper” as he pretends to be.


unknown-1Chapter 19

• Martino urges Chan to solve the case soon. Charlie confesses that he is “opposed in this matter by some person of extreme cleverness.”
• Martino states that Tarneverro is very clever. Chan counters that Martino himself is clever.
• Martino thanks Charlie for the observation, then says he is convinced that the way Tarneverro gets Hollywood stars in his clutches is that he has spies working for him.
• Chan reminds Martino that Tarneverro has an unshakable alibi for the time of the murder.
• Chan asks Alan Jaynes how the cigar stub ended up outside the pavilion window if, in fact, Jaynes had never been there.
• Jaynes says that he saw Tarneverro take a couple of cigars from his (Jaynes’) cigar box and put them in his pocket.
• Jaynes concludes that Tarneverro used the cigar to plant a false clue.
• The Chief wants to break Tarneverro’s alibi: he informs Charlie that he has asked the old Australian couple, the MacMasters, to come into his office later.
• The Chief, Chan, and a house detective search Tarneverro’s room, where they find a locked trunk.
• They open the trunk: it contains a portable typewriter and a ring.
• Chan types a few words and compares them to the anonymous letter Van Horn received: both were written on the same machine, the one in Tarneverro’s trunk.
• Charlie thinks the ring is the very one that cut his face when somebody snatched the envelope from his hand in Shelah’s house the night of the murder.

Chapter 20
• The librarian describes a second man who was in the library that morning. From the description Chan is convinced it’s Tarneverro.
• Chan sits in on the Chief’s interview of the MacMasters. Reluctantly, the Chief agrees that they are speaking the truth: Tarneverro has an unshakeable alibi for the eighteen minutes in question.
• Chan asks the couple if Tarneverro is the man’s real name. The couple says that Tarneverro has asked them to not reveal his real name.
• Chan explains that if they give his real name, they will not harm Tarneverro, who has an alibi, but they will help solve the murder of Shelah Fane.
Mrs. MacMaster tells Charlie that Tarneverro’s real name is Arthur Mayo. He is Denny Mayo’s brother.

Chapter 21
• Chan requests that the fortune teller come to the police station immediately.
• Chan proposes to the Chief that they say nothing of Tarneverro’s obstacles (hitting Charlie, snatching the letter, stealing Jaynes’ cigar, planting it as a false clue, and so on), but rather tell him they know he is Denny’s brother, and see what he says.
• When confronted with their knowledge that he is Denny Mayo’s brother, Tarneverro says he will explain. He says that because the police didn’t solve the case, he went to Hollywood in disguise as Tarneverro and began prying into the secrets of those who knew Denny — to determine who murdered him.
Tarneverro believes that the same person who killed Denny also killed Shelah, to keep her from revealing his name.
• After Tarneverro leaves, the Chief and Chan agree that Tarneverro’s story was not true: that it in no way explains why he created false clues at every turn.
• Chan finds Smith and brings him to the station house.
• The Chief unleashes on Smith, asking him why his fingerprints are on the windowsill of the room in which Shelah Fane was murdered.
• Realizing he is in a tight spot and may be accused of murder, Smith confesses that he did climb the windowsill and looked inside and spotted a diamond pin. Stooping from the sill, he picked up the pin — and then he noticed the murdered woman on the floor.
• Smith reaches into his pocket and hands the broken pin to Chan.
• The Chief says that unless Smith reveals what Shelah said to Fyfe, he will be sent to prison for theft of the diamond pin.
• Smith says he will tell them. Chan says that he wants Fyfe to be present.

Chapter 22
• Fyfe arrives at the police station.
Smith announces that what he heard Shelah Fane tell Fyfe was that three years ago in Hollywood, she murdered Denny Mayo.
• Fyfe then explains that Shelah told him that she had fallen in love with Denny, but on that night three years ago, he told her his wife in London had had an accident and was no longer able to work: he was going to ask her to join him in Hollywood.
• Shelah went crazy, pulled a revolver out of Denny’s desk, and pointed it at him. He struggled with her and the gun went off, killing him.
• Against her will, Shelah somehow found herself confessing this crime to Tarneverro.
• Immediately afterward, she regretted having confessed.  In fact, she was afraid, which is why she called her ex-husband and asked him to see her.
• After her murder, Fyfe found he couldn’t tell the police the truth because it would forever tarnish Shelah’s name.
• Chan asks if Fyfe is sure that Shelah did indeed confess to Tarneverro that she killed Denny Mayo. Fyfe says he is certain she did.
• The Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro for the murder of Shelah Fane. Chan disagrees, stating that the fortune teller’s alibi is unshakeable.
Chan produces the broken diamond pin and says it will help him solve the case. When they find the missing half, they will know who the murderer is. The murderer, he believes, tore off the orchids and trampled them underfoot, breaking the pin and imbedding part of it in his/her shoe.

Chapter 23
• In the dining room of Shelah’s house Chan asks Jessop to place the chairs in the same position they were the previous evening, when the guests were served coffee.
• With a magnifying glass Chan examines the floor, then asks Jessop which guest sat where. Chan stands behind a particular chair and asks who sat there. Jessop can’t remember.
• Chan makes numerous calls, asking people to return to the house.
• He tells the Chief that there are scratches in front of one (and only one) chair in the dining room, and that Shelah Fane’s murderer sat in that chair.
• Everyone files into the dining room and recreates where they sat the previous evening. It is Tarneverro who sits in the murderer’s seat.
• Again the Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro. Again Chan protests that the man’s alibi is unbreakable.
• Chan asks Jessop if, after the guests left, anybody else sat at the table. Jessop admits that he and Anna sat there. He indicates that Anna sat in the chair Chan is most interested in.
• Chan calls for Anna. He asks her to remove her right shoe. She is wearing a brace on her right ankle, which she injured three years ago. She removes the shoe.
• In the presence of all, Chan slits the rubber heel with his penknife — embedded in the heel is the other half of the gold pin.
• Chan accuses Anna of murdering Shelah Fane. He realizes that she is the wife of Denny Mayo — the one he intended to return to before Shelah murdered him.

Chapter 24  
• Chan accuses Tarneverro of having used Anna as his spy in Hollywood: the person who relayed to him various things about the stars, so that he could pretend to “see” these things in his crystal ball.
Chan states that as soon as Tarneverro heard of Shelah’s murder, he instinctively knew who did it and sought to protect her, inventing lies along the way, planting false clues.
Anna confesses that she killed Shelah. She remembered a watch alibi from a play she was in, and she used it to set the time of the wristwatch to 8:02, when she was in the kitchen having tea with Jessop.

__________________________

Barbara Gregorich provides clues and suggestions to mystery writing in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.

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.

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

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.

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.