I’m on a new adventure – I’ve moved to Edinburgh for an entire year, in part to get my masters degree in Scottish History, in part to research and write a new novel, and most of all to act on a very old dream of mine. I’m planning to post some fun, quirky and interesting highlights of the things that I see and experience while being a foreigner in a beautiful, enchanting, old, and above all mysterious place.
The big news this week is of course the independence referendum, and everyone here is fully engaged. Flags with YES and a smaller number with NO hang everywhere. On campus, people are handing out flyers for both sides like candy. My very first piece of mail, slipped – I kid you not – through a slot in my front door, was from JK Rowling urging me to vote NO. A parade, complete with bagpipes and men in kilts, all carrying big YES signs, briefly blocked my way to the train station until a police officer helped me run (well, okay…waddle rapidly) through a gap in the groups. The vote tomorrow is going to be really amazing whichever way it turns out.
Many of you have asked about a new novel, and I fully expect to write a new book – right after I solve the mystery of figuring out how to get around this place. They have these things called “buses” which, while claiming to be convenient, are in reality pedestrian-devouring monsters with a single minded goal of flinging your small helpless body down the center aisle where you ricochet off seats and other passengers until you manage to grab onto anything solid like a terrier grabbing a mailman’s leg. Then, it’s anyone’s guess where you’ll actually end up because you can’t really see upcoming stops from the inside, and eventually you just take your best guess and hurl yourself from the door. I walk a lot.
My flat is situated on the second story (or first floor if you’re Scottish) of what used to be an old stables. It’s a bit battered and strange, unsurprising considering it’s university housing and it was designed when William Wallace was discovering blue paint. (Yes, I know that’s not historically accurate.) To be fair, they’ve redone the bathroom (which means that everything is still laid out as inconveniently as possible, but the fixtures are new), and they’ve repainted (which means that the choking smell of mold-resistant paint partially masks the underlying fug of Brussels sprouts and old sock). They’ve provided a heated towel rack (nice!) but have placed it too far away to be able to reach it from the tub. The British are adverse to having electrical outlets anywhere near the bathroom, which means you have to find another location to blow dry your hair. Two excellent things:
When I was looking for flats, the enticing picture of this one showed a blue bucket situated in the tub. That bucket is STILL here! And there is a second bucket – my bucket needs are fully and completely met. As a friend said, I’m living a two-bucket life.
I have a mail slot IN MY DOOR. Even though my flat is up a steep flight of outdoor steps, the postman actually walks all the way up and delivers my mail. As I said, my first piece of mail was from JK Rowling…well, at least from someone using JK Rowling’s quote to promote the Better Together campaign.
Anyway, it’s only been two weeks, and I’m overwhelmed, exhausted, frazzled, and exhilarated. I’m well on my way to having enough fun things to fill a dozen novels. Let the adventure begin.
I’ve always been nervous about adding pictures or tips from other websites or blogs. There are lots of stories about lawsuits and general nastiness.
The blog at Posh Coworking addresses this issue with some great tips about how to do this without getting into trouble.
The author says,
“Remember, if you have taken any type of content from another person or website such as direct quotes, content, images, videos, and/or Tweets, you need to make sure you properly attribute that information them. If you don’t, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit, especially if your blog is used for business or widely publicized posts. Don’t be afraid to use online content, just make sure you include credit where it’s due!”
I was thrilled to read a new study showing a causal link between working at a messy desk and being creative, because I can use it to rationalize what I’ve always considered to be a major personal failing. I’m not a slob – I’m a writer!
Okay, I might be both. On a scale of one to ten, where one is a pigsty and ten is Buckingham Palace, let’s just say my office is an “oink.”
This is not a cleanliness disorder. My kitchen is neat. My living room is neat. My dining table is so clean you could eat off it. And honestly, I try with my office. Every month or so I make a real effort to clean up. Once I even de-cluttered far enough to see the actual faux oak surface of my desk. (I’d forgotten it was that color. Maybe I have a legitimate reason for keeping it hidden.) Anyway, within a few hours the mess was back – mail, post-it notes, and empty cans of diet Dr. Pepper drawn like iron shavings to a neodymium magnet.
But now! Now, I know that being messy can actually enhance creativity. I mean, if a few minutes at a cluttered desk can get a bored research subject to choose a “new” vitamin boost over “classic” or to choose a chocolate bar over an apple, then think what my years of writing in squalor can do for my novels.
So what is your working space like? And if you occasionally make an effort to straighten it up, do you see any impact on your creative processes?
How much does the cover of a book influence your decision, if not to buy, then at least to pick it up and take a look? Although we’d like to think otherwise, covers strongly influence our choice of reading. Sure, if you’re looking for something specific because you’ve heard it’s great, you probably won’t let your opinion of its cover dissuade you. But how about when you’re browsing the mystery and thriller section of your local bookstore, looking for that next new read?
Like a grand entrance at a speed dating event, the cover of a book makes that all-important first impression. The colors, the graphics, the layout all provide a strong visceral feeling that either draws the reader like the call of a siren or else repulses like a bad toupee dangling askew on a sweaty forehead. Moreover, a cover often sets up a certain expectation in the reader’s mind. Will the story be funny, dramatic, scary, or intense?
Take a look at the covers below and think about which you would be most likely to pick up:
(And yes, these are all actual covers for the same book – my first novel DEATH ON TOUR.)
The image on the left is the original cover, used on both the hardback and mass market paperback English editions. The image in the middle is the cover used for the German translation. The image on the right is the cover used for the English large print edition. (The title in German translates roughly to “Murder Inclusive” and is a play on the term “all-inclusive” used for travel packages.)
My point is that these three covers give three completely different impressions of my novel. So different, in fact, that they easily could belong to three entirely different books. Personally, I find one of them far more appealing than the others, which are attractive, but not compelling. (I’m not telling which is my favorite.) As an aside, authors typically have little or no say about the covers of their books. I was lucky enough to be shown the initial sketches and final art of the English translation, but I saw the covers of the other two only after they hit the shelves.
I’d love to know which you think is the most compelling. And if you’ve read my book, I’m dying to know which one provides the most “truth in advertising.”
Today I welcome guest blogger K.B. Owen, whose historical mystery novel DANGEROUS AND UNSEEMLY is launching this week. Kathy has long been one of my very favorite bloggers and now she’s one of my favorite authors. ~ Janice Hamrick
How about a little mystery fun…and a prize! Each stop in K.B. Owen’s book launch tour has a mystery question to answer. When you have them all, unscramble the answers to which ROOM, WEAPON, and SUSPECT, and email Kathy at kbowenwriter(at)gmail(dot)com. She’ll announce the winner (chosen from the correct entries) at Karen McFarland’s blog (http://www.karenmcfarland.com), the last stop of the tour. What do you win? A free ebook copy of Dangerous and Unseemly, and a $25 gift card of your choice to either Starbucks, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble! If you run into a few stumpers – no problem! Check out her Mystery Quizzes page http://kbowenmysteries.com/mystery-quizzes/ for links to the answers. If you’ve joined us in the middle of the tour, the complete list of Book Tour hosts can be found at kbowenmysteries.com or click here for more information. Good luck!
Email Deadline: Monday, April 1st
What famous fiction private eye said: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”?
I) Sam Spade
J) Phillip Marlowe
K) Mickey Spillane
L) Raymond Chandler
Fabulous Formula: K.B. Owen Discusses the Success of Perry Mason
Hi, everyone! I’m thrilled to be a guest on Janice’s site today, talking about one of my favorite classic mystery characters, Perry Mason, and his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.
The Perry Mason series:
The books are part of the hard-boiled, pulp fiction tradition, with sexy dames, hard-nosed cops, and a protagonist who has his own set of ethics and his own way of dispensing justice. Some critics contend that the series became more “soft-boiled” over time, but I haven’t done a close enough reading of all of the novels to have an opinion on that. It certainly wasn’t high-brow literature; just a fun read that didn’t pretend to be anything else. Below are some of the covers, and they’re certainly drawn in the pulp tradition.
The books are readable and comfortingly formulaic: the first half of the story is concerned with introducing the client, the problem, and the investigation, where the police and prosecution seem to have the upper hand and all seems lost; the second half of the story is the courtroom scene, where Mason uses all the lawyer tricks he can get away with to shuffle around the evidence and confuse the witnesses, until finally the true culprit confesses and his client is cleared.
The prolific Erle Stanley Gardner:
Gardner was a California lawyer for 20 years, which came in handy for those slick points of law that Mason uses to get out of tight spots. He did some pulp-fiction writing during those years, but really hit his stride when he turned to writing the Perry Mason series full-time.
Over the course of 40 years (between 1933 and 1973), Gardner wrote over 80 Perry Mason “cases,” not including several short stories that featured the lawyer/detective.
I find that astonishing.
How does an author produce so many stories, without repetition of storyline and elements?
One answer, of course, is that Gardner followed a formula for each book. As I mentioned above, the first half of the story is investigation, the second half courtroom. There’s another formula, too, in terms of who has power. In the first half, Mason has the deck stacked against him and it doesn’t seem possible to extricate himself and his client. In fact, all seems lost. Yet, by the end of the second half there’s a twist and – voila! Mason’s on top once again. As much as folks disparage the use of formula, it helps build the brand for a series like Perry Mason.
But another surprising reason for the prolific storylines is Garder’s use of plot wheels.Take a look at these cool little tools that Gardner used in writing his novels. (Source for the following images: Teaching the American 20s).
Below are the wheels. In case the writing is too small, here’s the title of each, clockwise from upper left: “Solution,” “Wheel of Complicating Circumstances,” “Wheel of hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero,” and “Wheel of blind trails by which the hero is mislead (sic) or confused.” Nifty, huh?
For more on Gardner’s use of plot wheels, and other writing strategies he employed, take a look at the following:
Della Street: the quintessential gal Friday, and an unacknowledged love interest for Perry. Super-efficient. I wish she could run my kids’ homework nights.
Paul Drake, of Drake Investigations: the man could find out anything, and was almost as fast as Google.
The clients: usually female, uncooperative bombshells, and their own worst enemy. Mason was essentially saving them from themselves.
Perry Mason: his cleverness and ingenuity won out every time. He was also not above walking on the shady side of the law from time to time: a little B&E, some suppressing of evidence, etc. Who doesn’t enjoy a rogue who’s also a good guy?
Beyond the books: radio and television
Radio: CBS ran the radio episodes in 15-minute increments, five times a week, from 1943 to 1955. It was sponsored by Tide laundry detergent, “the amazing washday miracle” (info courtesy of Jack French). In other words, it was a soap opera!
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. Image via tvtropes.org
Television: This was the Perry Mason we are most familiar with. The series, starring Raymond Burr, ran from 1957 to 1966, was a re-run staple for CBS, and later re-run on other stations.
Here’s a clip of the opening credits and music theme. Bring back memories?
Did you ever watch Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, or read the original novels? Who is your favorite detective? Janice and I would love to know!
Janice, thanks so much for hosting me! I had a blast.
About the author
K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. No doubt many people are thankful about that.
She now resides in Virginia with her husband and three sons. She recently finished the second book in the series, and is busily planning Concordia’s next adventure. Check out her website for more historical mystery fun: kbowenmysteries.com
About DANGEROUS AND UNSEEMLY
An unseemly lesson…in murder.
The year is 1896, and Professor Concordia Wells has her hands full: teaching classes, acting as live-in chaperone to a cottage of lively female students, and directing the student play, Macbeth.
But mystery and murder are not confined to the stage. Malicious pranks, arson, money troubles, and the apparent suicide of a college official create turmoil at the women’s college. For Concordia, it becomes personal when a family member dies of a mysterious illness, and her best friend is attacked and left for dead.
With her friend still in danger and her beloved school facing certain ruin, Concordia knows that she must act. But uncovering secrets is a dangerous business, and there are some who do not appreciate the unseemly inquiries and bold actions of the young lady professor. Can she discover the ones responsible…before she becomes the next target?
Absorbing in its memorable characters, non-stop plot twists, and depiction of life in a late-nineteenth century women’s college, Dangerous and Unseemly is a suspenseful and engaging contribution to the cozy historical mystery genre. Fans of Harriet Vane and Maisie Dobbs will find in Concordia Wells a new heroine to fall in love with.
Dangerous and Unseemly is now available from the following sellers:
It dawned on me recently that mystery writers do not think the same way that normal …um, I mean other … people think. It’s the little things: scanning the local crime reports and feeling a little disappointed that nothing eventful occurred during the night, watching the Pepsi delivery man at the grocery store to see if he’s really just delivering Pepsi, or wondering if the guy who runs the local gym is actually an evil ex-Ninja with sadistic tendencies plotting to take over the world. (Actually, I KNOW the guy has sadistic tendencies – you should see the exercises he thinks I should be able to do). But the real indicator happened last summer when I got locked out of my house.
This was not my fault, by the way. I was in the back yard when my daughter poked her head out the door to let me know she was leaving and by habit (and a very good habit it is) locked the door. Twenty minutes later, I turned the door knob to go inside and found the deadbolt doing the job for which it was designed. My first thought was a fairly standard, “Oh, no!” However, my second was…and I’m not kidding here… “I’ve always wanted to break into a house.”
The top half of my back door has one of those large windows with nine panes, and I had a toolbox on the porch. It seemed like Fate. In a flash of inspiration, I conceived the brilliant idea that I would break through the lower left pane, reach through the gap, and unlock the deadbolt. I even decided to time myself so I’d know just how long the hapless homeowners had between the first tinkling of shattered glass on the concrete floor and the inevitable brutal entry. Using a pair of sunglasses as eye protection, I placed an old towel over the pane and swung the hammer with a certain amount of trepidation.
It bounced like a superball off a brick wall.
Undaunted, I swung a second time. Once again I achieved only a bounce of the hammer and some seriously undamaged glass. Mildly annoyed, I dropped the towel, which was obviously providing too much protection, and tried again. The bounce, if anything, was higher. I gritted my teeth, widened my stance, and narrowed my eyes. Then, I lifted my arm and struck like a snake, assuming a snake had a hammer and the upper body strength of a toddler.
Absolutely nothing. I was pretty sure the door was mocking me.
Completely annoyed, I gripped the hammer with both hands and began pounding with all my might. And finally – triumph! The glass broke.
Sort of. A single crack ran from the lower left pane all the way to the upper right pane. That’s when I realized that the “panes” were simply slats of wood across a very large single sheet of glass. I also realized that the repair was now going to be seriously expensive, but I’d already crossed the glass Rubicon so to speak. I hammered away until the glass finally crazed (it was safety glass and there would be no tinkling), and I was able to break out enough pieces to make a hole large enough for my hand.
Only my hand wouldn’t go through. After all that effort, my questing fingers stubbed against a second undamaged pane. Foiled by the curse of double glazing!
By now, enough time had passed that any hapless homeowners (assuming they hadn’t already loaded their shotguns) would have been able to call the police, get dressed, pop some popcorn, and sit laughing their hineys off while watching me through their impenetrable back door. Throwing my hammer down in disgust, I stalked off to my neighbor’s house to ask to use the phone to call my daughter.
Which is what non-mystery writers would have done in the first place, thus saving themselves a $250 repair bill. By the way, those back door windows come in a single prefabricated unit. The whole thing can be simply lifted out and replaced in a matter of minutes by a smart alecky young man who does not try nearly hard enough to mask his amusement. Still, I consider it to be $250 well spent. I gained a lot of knowledge about door construction, a new confidence regarding the security of my home, and a terrific scene which appears in the third Jocelyn Shore mystery, DEATH RIDES AGAIN. And more proof, if proof is needed, that mystery writers just do not think like other people.
Even when the headlines are not full of tragedy, it’s not always easy being a crime writer. I worry about the moral implications of contemplating violent death. I sat at my keyboard with tears running down my face while writing about the death of a favorite character in DEATH MAKES THE CUT. Worse than that, my coworkers laugh nervously when they see me carrying scissors, and waiters give me odd looks when they overhear my friends ask who I’m going to kill next. In real life, real crime makes me sick to my stomach. So why do we love our crime fiction and why is a mild-mannered, law-abiding writer like me fascinated with that most heinous of all crimes – murder?
1. Thinking the Unthinkable
Evil exists in the world. As readers and as writers, crime fiction lets us view and attempt to understand horrible deeds through the safety lenses of fiction. Some books show the crime through the eyes of the killer and reveal his motivation, however twisted. Some books show the impact of the murder on the lives of those left behind – but in a fictional and therefore bearable way. Murder mysteries provide a controlled peek into the uncontrolled vortex of human evil, without the uncertainty and terror that accompanies the real thing. Plus, let’s face it – murder makes for darn good reading.
2. Living Vicariously
Crime fiction shows us how good people cope with tragedy. After a murder, the protagonist somehow has to pick up the pieces and make sense of things. The professional sleuth (the police officer or detective) struggles to maintain her emotional distance from the case while putting herself in harm’s way. This lets us feel admiration. The amateur sleuth (the friend or relative or innocent bystander) copes with loss and terror while fighting to achieve some kind of justice or closure. This lets us feel empathy. Sometimes the protagonist isn’t perfect and makes mistakes or choose actions that aren’t completely legal or even smart. This lets us feel superior. Crime fiction gives us the chance to live and triumph over life-altering events without actually experiencing that nasty life-altering bit.
3. Finding Justice and Redemption
Finally, we read and write crime fiction because of the unspoken promise: at the end, a good mystery delivers both understanding and some type of justice (something not always found in the real world). At the most basic level, a murder mystery is crime…and punishment. I find crime fiction to be some of the most deeply moral literature being written today. In most mysteries, there is a true sense of right and wrong; murder can never be rectified, but it can be avenged and the murderer must not profit from his crime. Mysteries explore the human response to evil and provide a sense that there are still good people in the world – people who do the right thing, who fight against injustice, who leap over tall buildings…no wait, that’s a different type of fiction. Seriously though, I find the struggle to find and stop evil as portrayed in most mysteries to be inspirational. It gives me hope in the human condition. (As a side note, I’ve recently read a few mysteries which are morally gray at best, and I have not enjoyed those at all.)
These are the big underlying reasons we enjoy murder mysteries and why we should be proud to enjoy them. Of course, there’s also the suspense, the drama, the action, and the adventure, which are definitely not to be sneezed at. What about you – why do you enjoy curling up with a great mystery?
Writer Marjorie E. Brody (contributor in Short Story America Anthology, Vols. I and II, and author of TWISTED, a psychological suspense) was generous enough to tag me in the ongoing The Next Big Thing game, in which authors get to talk about their favorite thing: their work in general and their current Work in Progress.
Invitations like this are just one more example of the incredible support and generosity of writers in all genres to their fellows. I am constantly surprised and delighted by the sense of community and goodwill I’ve found in every writer I’ve met.
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?
The final title is DEATH RIDES AGAIN. I’m notorious for having terrible working titles. My editor ever so tactfully requested title changes for two of my last three books. My working title was DEATH ON THE HOOF.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
As with most of my books, it began with a character. I wanted to explore more of my main character Jocelyn Shore’s personal life, and how better to do that than sending her to a Thanksgiving family reunion on her uncle’s ranch in central Texas?
What genre does your book fall under?
Classic mystery. It’s fun and funny.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Well, this depends on whether I get to star as the female lead myself in which case Colin would have to be Hugh Jackman. Honestly, I have a hard time picturing actors as any of my characters. To me, they are just themselves.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Texas high school history teacher Jocelyn Shore and her cousin Kyla travel to their uncle’s Texas ranch for a family Thanksgiving, only to find that their cousin is missing, her husband has been shot, and opening day at the new racetrack is off to a murderous start.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book is currently in production and will be published by Minotaur in June, 2013.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Roughly eight months and then about six weeks of edits.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
This is a tricky question. I think every author probably wants to be completely unique. But I will say that I hope that readers of Julie Hyzie or Maggie Barbieri might also like this book.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My family used to have a ranch in central Texas and the town, local racetrack, and festivals provided non-stop material for any author. I LOVE that part of the country and I really wanted to set a story there.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My characters as well as the setting. Jocelyn is in a difficult love triangle and needs to sort out her feelings. And the ranch and town provide a setting that most people don’t get to experience. Also, it’s meant to be funny, and I think readers will really enjoy the humor as well as the mystery.