Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Artist as Detective

Almost every mystery I pick up these days includes a nugget of information I haven't encountered before, or a window into something that is new to me. I enjoy these aspects of crime fiction, and often pick a book based on the jacket promising me an unusual perspective or discovery. I especially like mysteries featuring artists in any medium, and I always look for those who use their artistic skills to solve the crime. But these mysteries are hard to find.

In most mysteries featuring artists, the description of the detective or suspect as an artist is little more than window-dressing. The skill of the artist doesn't serve the mystery. In Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh, a group of painters at a summer workshop are suspects in a murder that happens right in front of them. But their skills as artists don't influence the investigation or solve the crime. In M.M. Kaye's Death in Kashmir the solution to the mystery depends on one character's artistic talent, which the sleuth has to recognize to solve the crime. 

Two more recent books inform the reader about art forgery but the skill of the artists involved are not essential to solving the crime. In The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, an artist shunned by the art world is drawn into the underground world of art forgery, and describes in detail how a painting is created to pass tests of authenticity. Inspector Diamond also deals with forgery in The Vault by Peter Lovesey. But only standard modes of detection lead to the guilty party.

In the Anita Ray series, one of my goals is to use Anita's talent and life as a photographer to understand and solve crime. Sometimes this means little more than questioning someone who walks into her photography gallery in the resort where she lives and works. In Under the Eye of Kali, a character sees something in the gallery that upsets her, and Anita tracks this down to help solve the crime.

Anita is concerned about art theft in The Wrath of Shiva, and this leads her more deeply into other unexpected circumstances. Her commitment to a life as an artist is part of her zeal to uncover the theft of family art but her eye as a photographer doesn't help solve the crime.

In For the Love of Parvati, Anita visits relatives who live in the hills. During a break in the monsoon, she takes a walk with her camera and discovers a body washed down in a flood. She photographs the corpse to record suspicious marks on his body, and relies on these photographs when the police later tell her that the man died from drowning during the monsoon.

As the series progresses I plan to do more with Anita's way of looking at the world, her eye as a photographer-artist. Her talent and career as an artist give her a freedom not available to other women, and a curiosity that leads her into unusual situations.



Monday, April 13, 2015

Beta Readers

I recently gave a short story to a friend to critique, and because it involved an activity her husband enjoys, sailing, she gave it to him to read also. Both came back with useful and pertinent suggestions, and I felt fortunate to have their reviews. As I finish an Anita Ray story, I'm getting ready to send it to someone who has also lived in India and will warn me when I conflate the ways Indian and Americans think.

These particular readers are among the three or four I rely on to comment on my work, and I have always felt comfortable with that group because their critiques are spot on and precise. But when I look at the acknowledgments in some of the books I've been reading lately, I notice the author often includes a long list of names of people who have read and commented on or helped with the book. The list includes friends and relatives as well as editors and a large number of beta readers. Sometimes the number of people in the last category can reach forty or more.

At a writers' conference I listened to another mystery writer describe her process. She sent out her ms to four writers, read their comments and edited her ms accordingly, and then retyped from word one the entire ms. Then she sent it out again. She did this until she had sixteen reviews, retyping the book each time. (Yes, that's a lot of typing, and a topic for another time.)

When I was writing my first mystery and learning about structure and character and plot and clues and all the rest of it, I read chapters of the book that would become Murder in Mellingham to my writers' group and sent opening chapters to friends in the publishing world. I learned from all the comments, but the total number of beta readers did not number more than ten.

How many beta readers do you need? I don't know the answer but I am wondering. A quick Google search for "Beta readers" brings up 55,400 entries, including a call for beta readers, a listing for a group on Goodreads, advice on how to apply to be one, things to do and not do, what to expect if you become one, and more. It there has been an explosion of writers in the marketplace, there has also been an explosion of beta readers and posts about them.

But there is one big difference between today, 2015, and the 1980s, when I began writing my first mystery novel. When I began I knew all my readers, and asked them for their views because I knew, first, that they liked to read and, second, they read carefully and often made astute comments about a story line or character. I wanted the benefit of their expertise. I didn't know about anyone who served as a beta reader for a writer they didn't know personally, and I didn't know any writers who sent their mss to readers they didn't know personally.

Today, in many case, beta readers are strangers to the writer seeking feedback. We have no idea if the people who post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site can read well or easily, like reading, or even care about books.

I don't know how many beta readers are considered enough, but I know that a good one is worth every effort it takes to find him or her. I consider myself fortunate to have several who have supported and guided me over the years.


But as I watch the writing and publishing world evolve, I wonder how the institution of the beta reader will also develop. How many will be considered enough? Will a group spring up to set standards for becoming a beta reader? Will we formalize the process? Will writers be expected to find strangers to serve as readers? I don't have any answers but I'm curious to hear what others think.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The non-book side of the Tucson Festival of Books

I agree with the dictum that blogs about events should be timely. Last weekend, not this past one, I had the pleasure of participating in the Tucson Festival of Books, an event that brings together writers on all levels, lots of publishers in the Southwest, as well as producers of educational aids, museums, and local groups. I had a lot of fun, sold a few books, and thought about posting a blog about the event. Other writers have done this already, so I put the idea aside. But I didn't forget it. A few things stood out, lingering in my memory, so I've decided to post them, even though I'm a week late.

First, Tucson is a very friendly city, and for someone born and raised in New England, the openness and friendliness is definitely culture shock. Plus there was no snow anywhere. I met a lot of people who evinced interest in my books, and to my surprise, actually bought copies. When I checked my Amazon sales records, I discovered they bought ebooks and paperbacks online as well. 

One of my hosts was the Desert Sleuths chapter of Sisters in Crime, a group I had never met but who invited me to join them on Saturday for an hour of signing.

Second, even allowing for the wind that sometimes felt like a visitation from the guy upstairs, the crowds were consistent throughout the weekend, without the extreme variation between the beginning of the event and the late afternoon on the second and last day. I expected the numbers to drop noticeably, but that didn't happen where I was.

Third, the tents with music were placed in such a way that one singer wasn't thwarted by another. This is just one example of the careful planning that went into the event. I saw Help tents at every intersection, large posters of event schedules (when the wind didn't blow them over), and numerous tents large and small for refreshments.

But last, I came across a tent that captured my attention and held it. The heading was "What if tomorrow never comes?" This is certainly provocative, and it set me to thinking. (I didn't know at the time that it was the title of a memoir by Neil David Schwartz.) The two empty chairs behind the table seemed to suggest one answer. If the future never comes, we won't be around either.

I decided to take away a simple homily. Today is better because it's filled with people, people doing
things even if what they're doing is longing for tomorrow or a different future. They're here, and life is now.


I've been working on an Anita Ray mystery that could have this heading for a title, and forcing each character to answer a similar question has proved far more interesting than I expected. Even Anita isn't ready for the question, but her Auntie Meena is. For once, dear, scatter-brained but devoted Auntie Meena is ahead of her beloved niece, Anita. We'll see what happens--in the future.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Writer's Repertory

I recently came across a quote by Gore Vidal that caught my attention and sparked my thinking about major and minor characters. Anyone who writes a mystery series will develop a number of minor characters in order to tell a fully fleshed-out story. I have several in the Anita Ray series, not all of them recurring, but Vidal's comment made me take a second look at them.

The quote is taken from an interview with Vidal in Conversations with American Writers edited by Charles Ruas.

"I heard somewhere the idea that every writer has a given theatre in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee [Williams] has five, [Ernest] Hemingway has one, [Samuel] Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with its characters." (quoted in Authors Guild Bulletin, Summer 2014, p. 34)

Normally I would keep reading after Vidal self-servingly claims to have ten characters while other writers, Williams and Hemingway, have far fewer. But his comment on Beckett, which made me laugh, was smarter than I gave him credit for being, and his final comment was worth thinking about.

I don't know how many characters the average writer has. But I do think all writers are in danger of repeating ourselves. If we have one successful book, we are tempted to look for the magic in it, and try to capture and repeat it, for future success. If we don't do that overtly, we may still begin a second story and soon find ourselves repeating scenes that reveal patterns. This is the territory of academics, who look for themes and underlying issues in a writer's body of work.

Anyone who writes a series in any genre faces the problem of avoiding repetition, and we work hard to make our characters and stories original in each installment. It goes without saying that we develop a main character that can carry a number of stories. We then surround our series character with a family, of sorts, of supporting characters who have the potential to grow and surprise us. We give each character a past or history, clear physical description, and specific attitudes and quirks. We strive to know them deeply, their emotional content, as well as their ordinary behavior.

In the Anita Ray series, Anita lives with her Auntie Meena at Hotel Delite. The cast of characters includes Moonu, the main waiter, Ravi, the desk clerk, and various other staff. Anita encounters murder among hotel guests and at her relatives' homes. If Anita travels, she usually does so with her Auntie Meena and Joseph, the hotel driver. This core cast was introduced in the first Anita Ray mystery, Under the Eye of Kali.

After characters, we turn our focus to creating unusual situations to test the sleuth and explore other types of character. In the second Anita Ray mystery, The Wrath of Shiva, Anita discovers the theft of ancient images from her extended family's estate. Smuggling of holy images in India is a special problem because of the sacredness and unique standing of these icons. We learn more about Anita's physical courage in this story.

We may change setting, introduce problems among the "family" members, or put the sleuth in danger. But the goal has to continue to be to make the characters seem as real as possible. Whether we like them or not, the individual who crosses the stage must feel real to engage the reader.

I don't know how many characters I have in my repertory, but I work hard to develop minor characters so that they carry much of the story and are themselves worth reading about. I want what happens to them to be interesting and their circumstances compelling. In the third Anita Ray mystery, For the Love of Parvati, Anita shares part of center stage with Parvati, a maidservant with a secret and a fear. As an undocumented worker from Sri Lanka, she has fled the now-ended civil war but fears that others hold her to an old code of honor.


Anita travels easily through the layers of society that is modern India, from life with foreigners at her hotel to traditional homes and ways of life. In a short story, "The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum," Anita meets another young woman trying to
traverse the same boundary, between the traditional and the modern.

I don't think I could write a story without a character, in imitation of Samuel Beckett, but if you're wondering how he does it, look at a few of his shorter works. For a play without a character, I nominate Quad, one of my favorite Beckett "performances,"available on youtube.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPJBIvv13Bc




Monday, February 16, 2015

Story Structure and Story Telling

Writers talk about laying out clues, spacing revelations about character or events, or pacing surprises. All these discussions are different ways of talking about structure, the underlying skeleton of a story or novel. Arguments over when or how something should be done are really disagreements in vocabulary. Almost no one disputes the basic organization of fiction because this is the form that is instinctively satisfying for the audience.

Teachers of writing have described the format in different ways, and I, like many other writers, enjoy
reading about these and picking up small details that will help me in my own work. But almost all work through the basic three-act structure, with an inciting action, two plot points, and a climax. I have seen discussions based on a nine-act structure, but this is not significantly different from a three-act structure.

I have never slavishly followed one of these outlines because I rely almost entirely on instinct. Most readers know the feeling of reading along and wondering what's going to happen next. They know something is going to happen because they can sense it, perhaps in the foreshadowing or in the rising tension or in hints coming from certain characters. The same feeling arises while writing. I often find myself following a character along in a scene and realizing something terrible has to happen in about two pages. And something does because it's my job as a writer to make it happen.

The purpose of exploring and learning from discussions of structure is in part to reinforce the writer's instinct that certain things should happen to meet the expectations of the reader, and to guide the writer on the path of the story set in motion. Any one of us can wander off track, following an especially interesting character determined to have his or her own story. If we have a basic story line and its structure in mind we are less likely to end up with an unwieldy story and undisciplined characters.

In addition to the graphics for story structures, some writers prefer to use a worksheet. A useful one allows the writer to keep track of the basic story progress, and to remind the writer where she is in the plot. If you know a certain key moment is approaching, you write to that point, bringing a tighter focus on the action of the story.

All of these materials or aids are only that. They are developed to help the writer tell a story, not to replace the work of identifying what is most compelling in the telling of the story.

The shape of the story is inherent in the characters and what they face and learn along the way. Bringing out their own stories and inner challenges will drive the discoveries and life-change events, and keep the reader turning pages to discover what happens next.