Most of the email I get is just lovely, but every rule has its exceptions.
I decided to try my hand at another form of expression and put a few of my more humorous experiences into a visual form. Take a look at my new cartoon and let me know what you think.
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
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.
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:
Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: the Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate, 1980 (before J.K. Rowling, obviously).
Perry Mason’s appeal:
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
Or maybe it’s just me.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Classic mystery. It’s fun and funny.
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.
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.
My book is currently in production and will be published by Minotaur in June, 2013.
Roughly eight months and then about six weeks of edits.
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.
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.
Look for updates from my tag-ees in the next day or two.
As many of you know, National Novel Writing Month (known affectionately as NaNoWriMo) is more than halfway over. If you aren’t already familiar with the movement, participants of NaNoWriMo attempt to complete a 50,000 word novel during November. The goal is to write 1667 words every single day for 30 days.
Here’s the thing though – in 2011, 256,618 writers participated and 36,843 reached their goal of writing 50,000 words. That’s 14%. Said another way, 86% failed.
Why would anyone set a goal that is so unattainable that failure is all but guaranteed?
Disclaimer: If NaNoWriMo works for you, if you love it above all other things, and if you’re already thinking of ugly things to blast me with for using the word “failed,” then I am delighted for you. Read no farther, or if you do, consider it an insight into the rest of us. (And please don’t blast me.)
If you’re one of the 86%, consider the following reasons why NaNoWriMo might not be the best tool in your writing shed.
Writing takes time. Heck, typing takes time. The average person types at 40 words per minute, which means it takes 41 minutes just to type 1667 words. And we all know typing isn’t writing. Creative writing requires intense concentration, effort, and mental acuity. In other words, it requires us to be at our best, and let’s face it, all hours in the day are not created equal. If you spend the day working a full time job, stopping at the grocery store on the way home, making dinner, and then sitting down in front of your computer to write, you just might not hit that 1667-word goal before you suddenly wake to find keyboard impressions in your cheek and a stream of drool short-circuiting your laptop.
NaNoWriMo is in November. November means Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means family. Family means traveling or hosting relatives who are traveling. It is a lovely time of year, but is it reasonable to expect that you’ll be able to excuse yourself while the turkey is still cooling on the table to find a quiet place to write? If not, subtract four days (at least) from your available time to write. BTW, your NaNoWriMo daily goal has now shot up to 1923 words.
I know, I know – the point of writing so much so quickly is to squash the evil inner-critic and just “let the creativity flow.” Here’s a news flash – some of us not only don’t work that way, we don’t want to work that way. And there’s NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Half the pleasure I take from writing comes from choosing just the right word, from repeating sentences over in my head or out loud to get exactly the meaning that I want. I love giving my characters the chance to come to life, to make their own decisions or have their own conversations, many of which are as unexpected and delightful to me as I hope they’ll be to the reader. For me, writing requires a gentle pace and a lack of pressure to perform, and that 1667 word daily deadline is a creativity killer that sucks the joy from writing faster than I could suck the filling from a Twinkie (sob – gonna miss them Twinkies).
So am I anti-NaNoWriMo? Not at all. It’s a tool. If it works for you, wonderful! If it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself, just find a different tool…or use the parts of NaNoWriMo that do work. So what works in NaNoWriMo?
Do set yourself a word-count goal that will help you keep writing without putting too much pressure on yourself. You know your own writing style and commitments, so choose a number that works for you. I chose 300 words per day, five days a week because that gives me flexibility. I can write 300 words even when I’m exhausted, and I never have to feel as though I’ve failed if I miss a day of writing. The best part of having such a low goal? I always hit it, and usually I blow past it. When I was writing DEATH ON TOUR, that goal meant I completed an 80,000 word novel, rewrites and all, in 9 months. Based on that pace, I briefly considered increasing my goal for DEATH MAKES THE CUT and DEATH RIDES AGAIN, but I decided against it. I completed DMTC in 8 months and DRA in 10 months, and I never felt bad about myself.
The NaNoWriMo site is a lot of fun – it provides a way to track your progress, get cool badges, and read pep talks. Read those talks, find a friend or a small group who understands or supports your goals, write down your progress. I keep a Word calendar (you can find the templates at Microsoft.com) where I log my ongoing word count. It’s very satisfying to set my weekly goal and then be able to write down an even larger word count.
The most important thing is to love what you do. Set goals that work for you, find your community, have fun, and keep writing.
I love getting to meet people who have read my books – it’s one of the very nicest parts of being an author. But one topic comes up frequently and yet always surprises me. People ask me where I get my ideas and then wait for an answer as though they think I shop at a secret “Ideas R Us” store and I’m going to give them the address. (I wish I did have access to a store like that, because I’d shop there a lot.)
The truth is a lot less fun, but a lot more believable. I work at it. I spend countless hours, I take notes, I write and rewrite and stomp around. I think about stories, characters, conversations, and plot twists all the time. Sometimes I get stumped, and I have to set my creative problem aside for a while, then try to sneak around it and surprise it when it’s not looking. In fact, because I have to work so hard, I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly creative.
It turns out, that’s just the way it works. In a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer discusses “How To Be Creative” and the best news is “anyone can learn to be creative and get better at it.”
The key is understanding that each creative challenge requires a different type of cognitive process. Some problems need a sudden flash of insight – that “ah ha!” moment that feels so wonderful. You can boost your abilities in this area by relaxing, by having a drink, by thinking about something else, by not paying attention for a while. This allows your right brain to process the information and besides, it’s fun. Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” And if you can’t trust Einstein, well who can you trust?
The flip side is that other problems require steady small steps – the type of continual incremental work that eventually brings success. Experimenting, refining, editing, and repeating often produces truly polished and magnificent work. Nietzsche said, “All great artists and thinkers are great workers.”*
(* The difference in these two quotes explains why Einstein was invited to far more parties than Nietzsche.)
Writing, more than almost any other type of activity, requires all the tools in the creativity shed. The flash of inspiration that explodes into a great character or story, the smaller flow when the perfect word leaps from your keys, the steady progress made by sitting at the keyboard day after day, week after week, whether you feel like it or not. Since I write in the mornings, I very seldom turn to alcohol (as far as you know), but the daydreaming, the slack-jawed staring into space, even (yes, it’s embarrassing) that occasional game of solitaire get my brain and creativity going each day. I used to think I was wasting time…but maybe I was just giving myself the break I needed.
What do you do to get your ideas flowing?
For more fabulous posts, be sure to see the Algonquin Redux blog, where writers get together to talk about writing, books, and life.
I talk about my favorite amateur sleuths on the Algonquin Redux blog…
When you think about any mystery series that you love, it’s all about the characters. Sure, you pick up that first book because the story sounds intriguing, but you keep coming back for your new best friends. Think about the classics – Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael. In a lot of ways, the mystery is just the vehicle that lets you watch your favorite characters in action. Sort of like the bun is really just the transportation device for the hot dog. You hope it’s a really good bun, accompanied by cheese, relish and ketchup, but you’re really there for the hot dog, aren’t you?
Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. But the best hot dogs…I mean, characters …drive the story and keep you coming back for more. Read more on Algonquin Redux…