Thursday, July 28, 2016

In Search of an Idea


My muse, having a rest

Donis here. In truth I am not filled with inspiration today, which is ironic since over the past few days my blogmates have been writing about the Muses and where ideas come from.

My Muse is taking a nap. This is not an unusual occurrence for her since this is what she does every time I finish a book. So, as I have done at the completion of every single book I have written over the last decade, I admit that I am, at least for the present, brain dead.

Eventually my Muse will slowly stir and an idea will begin to form. When the writing-muscles start to engage again, I become hyper-aware of what is going on around me, of what other people are saying, of what is in the news, of the weather, but especially of what I'm thinking. Most of the time, my thoughts float around in my head like fluffy little clouds that I pay no attention to, but when I'm in this state, I stare at them until I find interesting shapes.

When I was in college, I was a crammer. I never studied much for tests until a day or two before, then I'd study until my eyes fell out. I'd never recommend this process to anyone, though it seemed to work all right for me. Even at the time, I was aware that in order for cramming to work I had to have a literal change of consciousness, and become almost hyper- aware. When I look back on it, I think it was just a matter of paying close attention.

Ideas come to me from the oddest places–from something I’ve read, or some off-hand comment someone says within earshot of me (be careful what you say around a writer). Once or twice from a dream I’ve had. In any event, the idea gets in my head one way or another and wiggles around in there for a while. Eventually it begins to coalesce and I think, “That might make a good story.”

And I'll begin again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Characters and plot in search of setting

Barbara here.Today I want to continue the fascinating topic of muses that was raised in Aline's and Rick's two previous posts. Aline zeroed in on "motive" or rather the whole picture of what drives that particular killer to kill at that moment in that way, which forms the whole underlying question of the story. Rick addressed starting points--that germ of an image or idea that pops out of nowhere and starts the writer's mind on its creative journey.

Both of these are key elements to storytelling. One provides the initial spark and the other guides us in the weaving of the story flowing from that spark, just as an oyster slowly builds a pearl out of a grain of sand. I want to talk about setting, because that is foremost on my mind right now, and in the case of my Amanda Doucette novels, I can't begin the story until I have some idea of the setting. Each novel in this new series is set in a different iconic location in Canada, with the view that by the time I wrap up the series, I will have touched on Canada's beautiful, varied landscape and culture from coast to coast to coast.


Book One, Fire in the Stars, is set in the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, a wild and beautiful land of crashing oceans, craggy mountains, icebergs, and little fishing villages. It is already written, and due for release in early September. I have visited Newfoundland several times and have roots there, but I made two research trips to make sure I got the right feel and detail for the exact places I was writing about. Book Two, The Trickster's Lullaby, is set in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains just north of Mont Tremblant, and although I went there often for skiing and summer fun, I still made two short trips once I was writing the book in order to get the detail right. The setting needs to match the story I want to tell, and sometimes this means massaging the story a bit and other times changing the exact locale I had in mind.


Setting means not just physical surroundings but also season and weather. My third Amanda Doucette book is set in Georgian Bay and involves kayaks and rich island mansions. During these hot summer months I am finalizing the winter camping story in the Laurentians, and I will be writing the first draft of the summer Georgian Bay story in the dead of the upcoming Ontario winter. So I changed my writing schedule to do some location setting this summer, to figure out exactly where to set Prisoners of Hope. What a fun trip it was, driving the length of the eastern shores of Georgian Bay, exploring little villages and shoreline roads, and ending up in the village of Killarney at the northern tip of the bay, where the dogs and I took a lovely walk along the pink granite shore to the lighthouse.


The villages and shores themselves provided inspiration and plot ideas as well as dramatic atmosphere, and a long talk with the local outfitter helped me to plan the fictional trip my characters will take. None of that would be possible without a hands-on visit. Once I start writing the book, I know I will have many more questions about the setting, and will scour the internet for answers as well as keep a running list. When next summer comes and the first draft is hopefully mostly written, I will make another trip to Georgian Bay to get my final answers.

Even better than visiting the setting is walking through the experiences the characters will have. Thus in Newfoundland, I took hikes through the woods and along the ocean cliffs, took the whaling boat trip that my characters take, and ate in the restaurants. For the Laurentian book, I actually took a four-day winter camping trip. I would love to take a Georgian Bay kayaking trip, and am currently trying to see whether I can fit it into my schedule this fall. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Whither comes the muse? Or “capere musam”.

by Rick Blechta

Funny that Aline would be planning on writing her blog post on the same topic I was planning to use. Since we’re both discussing muses, perhaps we have the same one – or maybe our separate ones are colluding.

Where do ideas come from? While the arts (writing, music, dance, drama, painting, etc.) are all very different, they do share one commonality: they require an initial idea to get started on a new work.

I’m sure every writer of fiction has been faced with the dilemma of “characters in search of a story”. I certainly have. If you write a series as many crime writers do, you face this at the beginning of any new book. For those of us who write one-offs, it’s not as common, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens to most. (It’s always much easier to be confronted with a story in search of characters.)

And that’s where the muses come in, as Aline so ably described yesterday. Where do these ideas come from? It can be from an otherwise unremarkable conversation, perhaps even an eavesdropped one (happened to me in my third novel). It can be something you read or even witnessed. Sometimes an idea just comes out of the blue. Or a serendipitous encounter.

To me, those are the most fascinating. In my novel, When Hell Freezes Over, the genesis of the story came to me as I was driving home from a gig late one night.

Snow, whipped around by a stiff wind, made visibility poor and I sighed as I stopped, the lone car at a light.

A tap on the passenger window startled me. A young woman stared me in the face, so I rolled down the window.
“I need a ride. I have no money and I need to get home. Can you help?”

I almost said, “Sure. Hop in!” before an alarm bell clanged in my head. I would be alone in my car with someone I didn’t know and who might not have the best of intentions.

Instead, I asked, “Where are you heading?”

She gave me her destination, rather far out of my way. Should I take a chance to help a fellow person? All I had was a couple of twenty-dollar bills, no change, so I wouldn’t get off financially easily, but I decided to give her money rather than taking a risk.

“I’m headed in the opposite direction. Here’s a twenty. Take the bus and then a taxi to get home.”

She took it gratefully. Perhaps I’d just been scammed, but I hoped I hadn’t.

Regardless, the light had by now changed and I took off.

It hit me about 3 minutes later: if instead of tapping on the window, what if the girl had just gotten into my car? What would I have done? The answer was pretty clear. I probably would have been stuck driving her to her destination – if everything had gone okay.

A myriad of other possibilities flooded my brain, none of them good. Before I got home, I had the beginning scene in the book I was going to write and a solid idea of where it would take the story.

The next morning I realized another thing: I had just paid a paltry $20 for a terrific idea around which I could craft an entire novel.

Now regardless of being scammed or not, that’s money well spent, isn’t it?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Motives for Murder

What is your starting point for writing a novel? For me, it usually starts with a picture I have in my head: in Evil for Evil, for instance, it was a skeleton shackled to a metal ring in a sea cave wall. I've no idea where it came from, but thank you to whatever Muse put it there because it gave me what I needed to start asking the questions that make a plot – why was it there, who could have put it there? And what could have happened before, to make someone do it – the whole dramatic point of the story.

Means, motive and opportunity – the classic wisdom about what the police need to establish in order to prosecute a crime. It's often the very backbone of a police procedural novel.

Only, of course, when I thought about it, motive doesn't actually form part of the necessary police evidence; maybe the prosecution will suggest one as a way to influence the jury, but for a trial to succeed it's only essential to prove that the accused was in possession of whatever was needed to commit the crime and was there at the time.

'What makes someone a killer?' is the question that interests me most in crime fiction, but it's not really 'motive' that's answers it.

There's a classic list of motives for murder, sometimes summarised as 'love, lust, lucre and loathing.' (My criminal defence advocate son would point out that getting drunk and lashing out was actually by a distance the most common.) It covers jealousy, ambition, revenge.

Yet if you look at the Shakespeare tragedies, Macbeth's motive is ambition, Hamlet's is revenge, Othello's is jealousy – all technically sufficient motives. Give Hamlet Macbeth's motive, or Othello's, and there would be no play. What gives the tragedies their absorbing interest is that each of the heroes is put into the precise position where their particular nature leaves them vulnerable.

It's the interplay of nature, nurture and circumstance that makes the killer and for all the psychological reports commissioned for the courts, in real life you can't  hope to know the full story. When it's your own character, you can – another of those god-like powers that keeps us all addicted.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Happy Happy Anniversary

This week our blogmaster, Rick Blechta reminded the Type M'ers that our blog is ten years. I'm a fairly recent member and came in through the good graces of our beloved Donis Casey. I'm feel humbled and honored to be included with this collection of talented, generous people.

I tried to look up my first blog before I started this post, but I'm going to have to settle for completing this scant offering without including the date.

I'm getting a new roof and guttering on my house. We have a great homeowner's association and this is only going to cost me $40.00. So I'm quite cheerful about all the banging and shower of debris. But nevertheless I can't work with this sort of noise. I jump when there's a bang. Could be gunshots you know. One pays a price for possessing a murderous mind.

My deadline for the new mystery is August 16th so I'm leaving daily for a more peaceful place. Through the roofing process my internet is temporarily very erratic. So I'm going to publish this post before it all goes away again.

A sincere thank you to everyone who has followed this blog. And we can't thank Rick Blechta and Vicki Delany enough for starting it in the first place.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Technical Goulash

I'm nearing the 10,000-word mark of a new project that is very different from other books I've written for a number of reasons, the first being that I'm writing in present tense.

Goodreads List of Present-Tense Novels

Interestingly, I taught Naomi Hirahara's Murder on Bamboo Lane this past year, and none of my students noticed the tense (or mentioned it until I did). As a teacher, that was frustrating; as a writer (nice job, Naomi!), that's a good thing. I know if I'm consistent in voice, point-of-view, and tense, I'll go unnoticed, something I'm always striking for: I want readers to be so lost in the story they forget they're turning pages at all.

Writing present tense is interesting on many levels. The syntax, for one, has changed. Sentences are shorter (for me, that's never a bad thing.) I find myself writing a lot of fragments (missing subjects). This is happening naturally. Just riding the rhythm of the book. And my nemesis, the To Be verb, is getting very little airtime, something that pleases me immensely. The chapters are averaging less than a thousand words.

Additionally, the pace of the book is faster because of the tense choice. Dialogue propels the action for me, as always. But the I see this book being shorter than some others I've written in recent years. (Whether that holds up or not remains to be seen. Every time I start a book I tell myself this time I'll be really efficient.)

Like any writer, I will do my best to show and not tell: 

My second-floor classroom looked out onto the quad. There was a grass courtyard nearly the size of a soccer pitch and boxed in by brick dorms and brick office and academic buildings. Morning sunlight reflected off benches that glistened with ice and snow. Christmas was a full three weeks away, but twenty inches of snow had already fallen. Parents' Weekend took place only a month earlier, when cobblestone paths were ablaze with autumn's fallen leaves and playing fields' sidelines were awash in light blue swag and proud parental voices. That seemed a distant memory.

My second-floor classroom looks out onto the quad, a grass courtyard nearly the size of a soccer pitch, boxed in by brick dorms and brick office and academic buildings. Morning sunlight reflects off benches glistening with ice and snow. Christmas is a full three weeks away, but twenty inches of snow have already fallen. Parents' Weekend – only a month ago, when cobblestone paths were ablaze with autumn's fallen leaves and playing fields' sidelines were awash in light blue swag and proud parental voices – seems a distant memory.

The differences are evident. Immediacy being the most obvious. No surprise there. But more subtly, the imagery, particularly of the final line, is punched up. The present tense version in the second paragraph is more forceful.

Now I put the challenge to you: Take a paragraph you've written recently, and rewrite it in the present tense. What differences do you find? This might serve as another technique for your toolbox. After all, a present-tense scene well-placed in a past-tense novel might heighten suspense and add to your reader's experience.

I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this and my Type M colleagues' opinions.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Poirot: From Page to Screen

I love, love, love Agatha Christie. I’ve read all her books at least twice, and I enjoy the TV and movie adaptations. The version of A Caribbean Mystery featuring Helen Hayes as Miss Marple never fails to cheer me up. Yep, you know you’re a mystery writer at heart when a murder mystery makes you feel better!

Even though I’ve read them all, I’m not as familiar with her short stories. I recently decided to rewatch the first season of the Poirot TV series featuring David Suchet as Poirot.

The first season is 10 episodes, each 48-51 minutes long, all adaptations of Poirot short stories. After watching each episode, I read the story it was based on to see what changes had been made.

Here’s what I noticed:

Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon are often inserted into the TV version of a story where they weren’t in the original. When this happens, there’s usually some scene at the beginning that reveals the relationship between Poirot and the two of them. I have to say, these scenes are the ones I remember the most, probably because they are great fun. And whenever a policeman was needed, Inspector Japp was always the man they called, which wasn’t necessarily true in the original story.

In a couple of the stories, The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly and The Incredible Theft, Poirot is brought in before the crime occurs in the TV version. In the original stories, he’s brought in after the kidnapping and theft, respectively.

In a few of the TV versions, when the culprit is revealed, they added a pursuit scene that wasn’t in the short story. Makes for a better visual and I have to admit is quite fun.

There’s only one story where I noticed the TV adaptation changed a clue slightly, Murder in the Mews. I think it worked out a little better.

A few of the stories collapsed a couple characters, but occasionally new characters were added.

In Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds, there were quite a few changes. Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings were added, the dinner companion was his dentist, someone’s profession was changed, the contents of a letter was changed and a visit to Scotland Yard’s new forensics lab was added.

In The King of Clubs, a famous dancer became a famous actress and the murdered man the head of a movie studio. That gave Poirot the chance to visit a film set.

Overall, they’re quite faithful to the story, keeping the solution and the murderer generally the same. I think these adaptations are great and I have no problems with the changes made. And, dare I say, they made the stories more fun to watch.