Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Memorable Moments in Crime Bake 2016

Crime Bake 2016 is behind us now, but it was, as expected, a solid event for writers and readers, with several memorable moments. I'll focus on two today.

We were happy to see the new incarnation of the Level Best Books anthology, now in the hands of four new editors. Kimberly Gray, Verena Rose, Harriette Sackler, and Shawn Reilly Simmons have edited thirty-two stories, arranged by state and New England, as the seventh category. They have continued the tradition carried on by Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, and begun by Skye Alexander (and later by Ruth McCarty), Kate Flora, and myself in 2003.

It is very gratifying to see something that began as a single anthology live on its current form. The new editors, though not living in the area, came to Crime Bake and continued the tradition of holding a signing for all the writers whose work is included. Windward: Best New England Crime Stories offers familiar as well as new names in the crime-writing world. The anthology also continues the tradition of publishing the Al Blanchard story, won this year by P. Jo Anne Burgh for "Bagatelle."

The guest of honor this year was William Kent Krueger, whose Cork O'Connor series mixes the local lore of the First Peoples of Krueger's beloved Minnesota with complex stories and deft investigation. At Crime Bake and other conferences, the guest of honor is usually interviewed by another writer, but this year Kent broke with tradition. He gave a lunch-hour talk that had many of us ignoring our lunches to listen better. I jotted down a few notes, but mostly I listened.

Kent opened with one question. The DaVinci Code is the best selling American fiction. But what did it replace? The names tossed out by the audience were many and varied, and almost everyone reading this now will come up with the same titles. But the answer was a surprise. Brown's book replaced The Valley of the Dolls. No one named that one.

The two best-sellers will be forgotten in the near future, Kent pointed out, because they reflect a moment in time. They depend on plot. The books that most of us thought of and called out--Tom Sawyer, Gone with the Wind, and others--will be remembered and read well into the future because they depend on character.

Mysteries, he said, allow us to talk about important social issues. We can explore current events and timely questions, looking at them from the perspective of the overarching question of justice and fairness. Kent also made the point that we no longer have social novels. We don't have writers like Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), or John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) writing fiction around certain issues. These novels have been replaced by mysteries.


Kent's talk was one of the most interesting and stimulating I've heard in a long time, and I know I'll be returning to my notes, perhaps for another post.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Developing the Protagonist

This past weekend I attended Crime Bake, the annual mystery conference held in Dedham, Massachusetts. This is a small conference with lots of panels and opportunities to meet other writers and readers. In the coming weeks I'll share some of the ideas and insights from the conference. Today I'll talk about the practice of developing a protagonist by listing 20 things you know about this character.

At first this sounds like an easy exercise. This is your novel and your protagonist, so you know all there is to know about your character. Right? Probably not. Each item or characteristic will limit what can be included afterwards, and some will have a greater impact than others. In addition, once you get past the first ten or so items, the exercise becomes more difficult. Let me work through one example, using Chief of Police Joe Silva. When we meet Joe, in Murder in Mellingham, he is already entering middle age.

1. Joe Silva is of Portuguese descent. This has implications for the kind of experiences he has had growing up and as a young man.
2. Joe is a little over average height, so he's considered tall. But his height isn't so great that he would compete with Jack Reacher, Lee Child's creation.
3. Joe is unmarried. This opens up all kinds of plot possibilities, and indeed he makes a commitment in the third book, Family Album.
4. Joe worked on his father's fishing boat. This means Joe is working class.
5. Joe is easy going.
6. Joe has a kind sense of humor.
7. Joe is the middle of seven children.
8. Joe calls his mother every week, but rarely visits his family, who live about two hours away.
9. Joe attended Northeastern University. This is a co-op school, meant for commuters as well as the working class population. He would have dressed well, jacket and shirt, perhaps even a tie, for his first week of classes. If he'd been born in a different environment, and gone to Harvard as a legacy student, he would have dressed very differently.
10. Joe is patient. No one would ever call him a hot head, and for a career policeman this is important, affecting his chances for advancement.

By this point we're going deeper into Joe's character. We could fill up the slots with personal tastes (coffee with milk), physical description (black hair and brown eyes), talents (he learned to carve from his grandfather), and childhood (he shared a room with his two brothers). But these aspects, though important details, don't tell us much about the man who is Joe Silva. This is where we have to make choices, and dig deeper for human qualities and behaviors.

11. Joe is broadminded. Having grown up as a minority and working class, he felt the sting of prejudice, and he is sensitive to how circumstances can make other people feel.
12. Family matters a great deal to Joe, so he understands the motivations of others who often make bad decisions for what seem to be the right reasons.
13. Joe is tolerant. He knows people are different simply because he grew up surrounded by siblings who were always debating and arguing and being as different as people can be.
14. Joe grew up in an old-fashioned home, and has chosen to maintain certain practices. You will not hear him call his older relatives by their first names. His uncle will always be Tio.

The deeper we go into the list, the less observable the qualities are. We are now delving into Joe's character, his way of living in and dealing with the world. These are the qualities that people come to know about another after living or working with them for a number of years. They are also the qualities that emerge in a crisis, as we follow our character through the process of discovering the murderer or confronting him or her.

15. Unless someone else's rights or standing are on the line, Joe will prefer to walk away from an argument. Life is too short to be tense with anger all the time.
16. Joe will not bear a grudge but he will keep his distance from people whose way of life repulses him, the fast-talker, the smooth-talker, the builder who cuts corners, the man who whines about his taxes but lives in a million-dollar home.
17. Joe loves his family but he vowed as a young man when he entered the force that he would not show favoritism to any friend or relative. This has not always been easy for him, but he takes it day by day if he has to, as in Last Call for Justice.
18. Joe grew up working on his father's boat and his uncle's farm, so he is physically strong, but he finds most sports a waste of time. He doesn't play golf or tennis (no one in his family did), and only signed up for track and field during high school. He was big enough for football and fast enough for ice hockey, but the violent physical contact didn't appeal to him. He'll watch a football or hockey game but he's not interested in playing.

Even though we may now think we know this character well, he can still surprise us, and we should be ready for that. Joe Silva remained unmarried well into adulthood. But when he did make a commitment, he exhibited two more qualities that are important to our understanding of him and his life story.

19. Joe is a man of fidelity. Once he makes a commitment to a life partner, he is never going to cheat on her.
20. Joe became a stepfather and discovered that he loved being a father. He had set aside his feelings about family and parenting when he didn't marry as a young man, so coming to this in his middle years has brought unexpected happiness. He looks forward to opportunities to spend time with his stepchildren, and to teach them what he knows, in Come About for Murder. 

We learn who someone is by watching his or her behavior, and the same is true in a novel. I developed Joe Silva's character through several books, but in each one I had to stay true to the original impression I created in Murder in Mellingham. In each book, however, we get to know Joe more deeply. He's not perfect, but he's a decent human being who loves his work and his family, and faces challenges squarely.


 To find the Joe Silva/Mellingham books, go here.here

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Remembering Kathleen Valentine

I had plans for my blog post today, but I've put those aside for something more important. Over the weekend a dear friend and accomplished writer died. Kathleen Valentine had just completed the final draft of a Halcyon Beach mystery, which I had the pleasure of reading in near-final form a couple of weeks ago. She was getting ready to publish it.

Kathleen was a prolific writer, setting her stories in her beloved fictional town of Marienstadt, or the worn-out tourist town of Halcyon Beach, and even in the elegant homes on Beacon Hill. She brought to each story a love of her characters, and a curiosity about their lives, past and present. She was an old-fashioned story teller. When I read her books I imagined listening to her sitting on the sofa in a living room with lots of friends seated around, listening to her stories unfold.

When self-publishing first came on the scene, many of us were flummoxed and confused. But Kathleen, a well-established graphic designer, took one look at the possibilities and jumped right in. One of her first efforts was a knitting book and another was a cookbook. She published her novels and novellas, and sold thousands of copies. She sold so many of one title in particular that she earned enough in one year to pay cash for a new car.

A few of us got together regularly for lunch at one of her favorite lunch places. We brought books to share, told stories, talked about our projects, and got ideas for new ones. Recently she had started reading according to a personal goal--to read a story about women by a new author from every country. She was half way through Southeast Asia and part of Africa.

Kathleen regularly worked with men and women who had a story to tell but didn't consider themselves writers. She helped them get the ideas on paper, and then to get the book published. She designed covers, helped promote the books, and took them with her when she did her own book events. She was unfailingly generous with time and expertise.

Kathleen grew up in Pennsylvania, lived in Texas and Boston and other parts of the country, but chose to settle in Gloucester. She loved the ocean and she loved the characters she found in the vibrant mixed community that is Cape Ann. She created another community on FB, where she posted several times a day, sharing news of her projects and commenting on all manner of activity. She posted with humor and compassion, and tried to reason with unreasonable people during some of our most trying times, like now.


I was on the verge of emailing her to set up another lunch date. Now I'll wait to learn about the funeral. I can hardly believe it. Kathleen, you will be missed by all of us.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Community of Writers and Readers

The world of crime fiction offers something special to readers and writers—a community of like-minded people and opportunities to get together and share books and discussion of the genre. The characters in our books seem just as real as the person sitting in the chair beside me, or the mailman who drops mail in the box every morning, and readers care about these characters sometimes just as much. During a conference in the 1990s a reader asked me about Chief Joe Silva’s family in the Mellingham series. That simple question led me to think harder about his family. The result was Last Call for Justice, which takes Joe back for a family reunion, where an old grudge surfaces and an old crime is solved.



Anyone who knows me knows I love talking and writing about India. To date there are four novels in the Anita Ray series, beginning with Under the Eye of Kali. Readers can count on a lot of local color as well as references to Indian food, and one of the most fun things I did was write up a couple of recipes to give away at events. Some writers have bookmarks and business cards; I have recipe cards. And sometimes a member of a panel audience will suggest another Indian dish for me to try.



Last week, at the Marstons Mills Public Library, I had the pleasure of talking about crime fiction with two other writers to a small but attentive audience. Connie Johnson Hambley, Carolyn Marie Wilkins and I write very different crime novels, but we have similar experiences as writers. We ran out of time to answer all the questions the audience members wanted to ask, so here is an answer to one of the questions. Jill asked what British mysteries do I enjoy reading? I didn’t have enough time to answer, so this blog post is for Jill. Here’s a list of authors I hope to read this year—I have a stack of their books ready and waiting. Now, if I just had more time . . .

Over the coming year, I hope to read books by M.C. Beaton, Frances Brody, Anne Cleeves, Martin Edwards, Peter Lovesey, Charles Todd, Peter Robinson, Ashley Weaver, and Jacqueline Winspear. I also hope to fit in one or two books by Rhys Bowen, Peter Dickinson, Felix Francis, and Anne Perry. I’m sad that Ruth Rendell is no longer with us, but I haven’t yet read all of her books, so I still have some to look forward to.

These authors are only some of those whose books are lined up on a bureau in the upstairs hallway. I’m working my way through them slowly but surely. And if I go to my local library’s fall book sale, I’m sure to find more to add to the list. But these names should be enough to get you, Jill, and others started.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Ideas Are Everywhere

For the last several months, our city has been installing new sidewalks and water pipes. This has meant shutting down long sections of major streets and bringing in many pieces of big equipment while macadam is torn up, sewer drains are moved, and water pipes are replaced. We awake at seven in the morning to heavy drills and tin drums rolling around.



Because our section of the street is the widest, the construction crew has been storing dozens of granite curbs and other items in this section. Trucks travel back and forth tamping down temporary trenches, sending up swirls of dirt. Our sidewalks are torn up, plastic barrels narrow the street even more, and our driveways are shut off for days, even weeks, at a time. The lines for cable and the telephone are scattered across the dirt, and one neighbor, with two young school-age children, lost both for over a week. Apparently these lines going to be reinstalled about two inches below the surface, without the protection of plastic pipes or depth below the ground.



And through it all I have the same thought: if people really wonder where my ideas as a writer come from, they should look out my window. I have imagined hapless construction workers clearing the lawn to lay out the new sidewalk and digging up a body. I have turned carelessly buried plastic water bottles into bags of stolen gems haphazardly lost and now gone forever, or until . . . I have imagined neighbors arguing endlessly with City Hall about the path of the new sidewalk, all in a desperate attempt to prevent someone from digging up—what? The trash collector is required to come before seven in the morning, and at that early hour, before we have full light, is witness to more than he should know about.


If you want to know where I get my ideas, just look out my window. Or better yet, take a walk through the neighborhood. Ideas are everywhere.